Ep. 113: Discussing School Climate, Parent Involvement and More Findings from Recent Survey

May 9, 2019

In this episode of EdChoice Chats, EdChoice Vice President of Research and Innovation talks with the two authors of our recently released report, Families’ Experiences on the New Frontier of Educational ChoiceDrew Catt, our director of state research and special projects, and Albert Cheng, assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, discuss the most interesting responses from Arizona parents. This survey examines families across all education sectors—from private, to public, to charter schools and more.

Paul DiPerna: Welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. I’m Paul DiPerna. And I’m here today with authors Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director of state research and special projects, and Albert Cheng, assistant professor at the University of Arkansas. They’re here to discuss their latest work, the new EdChoice report titled Families’ Experiences on the New Frontier of Educational Choice: Findings From a Survey of K–12 Parents in Arizona.

So, welcome to both of you. It’s great to be here with you guys.

Drew Catt: Thanks, Paul.

Albert Cheng: Thanks.

Paul DiPerna: So, maybe to just start with the big picture questions, how did you guys become interested in this type of survey project? Drew, if you want to go first then Albert.

Drew Catt: Well, Paul, as you’re aware, I started doing cross-sector parent surveys a few years ago with Indiana. Kind of building upon your 2013 survey of Indiana private school parents focusing on the voucher and tax-credit scholarship parents but, along with a co-author at the time, Evan Rhinesmith, we really wanted to dive in to see what differences existed across the sectors.

And I was really interested in doing that in Arizona and seeing the responses from the ESA families who, to the best of our knowledge, hadn’t really been surveyed since 2013. That was only two years into the program. The program is currently wrapping up its eighth school year of operation and has expanded the eligibility pool multiple times. So, I realized we had the opportunity to see how the perceptions and experiences of ESA families differed from other private school families, including those using one of Arizona’s four tax-credit scholarship programs. Let alone any differences from the ESA families, or TCS, tax-credit scholarship, families from the charter or traditional public school families.

It was great going back and forth over the design and the questionnaire with Albert. He had a few different interests than I did and added some good questions. I don’t know how much you want to talk about those, Albert.

Albert Cheng: Yeah, sure. I can share a little about my interests in the project. I think on one level, I was simply curious about parents’ views and perceptions about the schools and hearing their voices as they describe their experiences with educational institutions.

If I can digress a little and tell a brief story, I was actually at a release event for one of the buddies of the Louisiana Scholarship Program and here we were giving these presentations on outcomes and results that maybe policy folks talk about. And then a parent came up to me after and was thanking me for the work that we were doing and just expressing how thankful she was for the program because her kid was safe. It occurred to me that we had looked at all these outcomes and here, parents had different priorities and were interested in the voucher program for a different reason. Ever since that moment, I’ve kind of resolved to take a deeper dive into what parents think. For this project, I was fascinated about simply investigating why parents chose the kinds of schools and educational options they chose. Moving beyond what kind of school characteristics they were evaluating or considering when making their choices.

Also, asking the antecedent question about what they thought the purpose of education was. There are definitely some interesting findings there that I’m sure we’ll have time to get into now or later.

Paul DiPerna: That’s really great to hear about the kind of questions that you and Drew are really interested in exploring for this project. Can you tell the listeners a bit more about the profile of the survey and some information about the survey populations, when it was fielded, and how big the samples were?

Albert Cheng: Sure, so this is a survey of parents in Arizona. In the end, we actually have a sample of about 3,600 parents across the board. Some of these parents go to traditional public school, some go to charter school, and we have lots of private school parents as well.

So, even drilling a little deeper into the private school sector, you’ve got some parents that are using an ESA to attend the private school, some parents are participating in the tax-credit scholarship program that’s in Arizona and then we have other private school parents who don’t use either of those programs.

We have pretty much a large cross-section of all different types of parents divided by the ways they provide for their children’s educational needs. And yeah, we administered the survey. We rolled something out almost a year ago—summer of 2018—through an online survey. And, basically, there is a convenient sample.

One caveat with all the results to keep in mind is this is not meant to be a representative sample of the state. But we have simply interested in administering a poll to these parents and getting their views about their kids school-wise, the educational experience of their kids, what their experiences were in looking for a school and how they basically provided for the families in that way. So, convenient sample aside, if you look at the demographics, they do look similar to the Arizona adult population. I suppose we could kind of look at some of the demographic breakdown by sector. Perhaps, not surprising charter school and private school parents who have slightly higher educational attainment and income than parents in traditional public schools, but the difference isn’t that great.

But certainly among private school parents, the folks that use the tax-credit scholarship program, or an education savings account don’t have as comparably as high rates of attainment and household income as other private school parents. The patterns, I don’t think there’s anything surprising about that. It’s probably what we generally expect, given what we know about how the parents choose, and, which parents enter particular sectors of schooling.

Paul DiPerna: So, would you guys say even though this isn’t a randomized sample, in terms of representativeness, it gets pretty close to those different populations whether they’re in the public district sector, charter school sector, private school. It seemed like the demographics shook out more or less how you would expect it.

Albert Cheng: It’s fascinating that the demographics do seem to match up, but we can be strict and conservative for ourselves and to acknowledge that this was a convenient sample. So, interpret things with a grain of salt.

Paul DiPerna: Following up demographics, getting right to the big question about how satisfied are these parents with their schools? Whether in the public or private sector.

Drew Catt: If we’re just talking parental satisfaction of schools, then overall, I would say that charter schools seem to have the comparative advantage. With more than four out of five parents, or 82 percent, saying they were satisfied. The thing that stood out to me is that 53 percent of the responding charter school parents were completely satisfied. That would be amazing for any business, to say that over half of their customers were completely satisfied.

But that aside, for the other sectors, 73 percent satisfaction overall for the traditional public school parents, and then 72 percent for the private school parents that did not have a child in ESA or one of the tax-credit scholarship programs. Then the numbers dropped a little, with 61 percent for current ESA and 56 percent for current tax-credit scholarship. And I think it is very important to point out that there are completely satisfied and completely dissatisfied parents in any sector, and personally I think it is paramount to pull a quote from the end of the report here, that any one metric for evaluating schools in a diverse educational choice system, like the one in Arizona, is likely to provide an incomplete assessment of what school choice does for families.

So, even though like you said, Paul, that satisfaction with school was the big question, it gets a little different especially when we’re talking about ESA families. Because not every single ESA family had their child stepping foot into a brick and mortar school.

Albert Cheng: I think it’s worth mentioning, too, that we did ask a separate question of whether parents were satisfied with the programs themselves. Whether ESA users and tax-credit scholarship users, not satisfied specifically with the school, but with the program. Results suggest we’ve got about three fourths of parents indicating complete satisfaction or a bit less satisfaction with these programs. It’s important to put both these questions and highlight the nuances in the language to paint at least the most precise picture we can get.

Paul DiPerna: What are some of the most common reasons parents are choosing these schools, whether charter, district, private. Albert, if you wanted to follow up with that?

Albert Cheng: We were talking a bit about this earlier in our discussion. Just to remind the listeners, two things about the ways parents were choosing schools. One was what their philosophy of education was. We followed it up by asking what they believed the purpose of education was. And then we followed up by asking well what are some of the school characteristics that you considered when making a decision for your kid.

So, what’s fascinating is that among public school parents, so this includes district run schools and charter schools, parents were much more likely to indicate that the purpose of education was preparation for future employment, and fostering independent thinking. This is probably the most surprising result out of the entire project, for me. There’s a huge contrast if you consider parents in private schools. Parent in private schools, particularly those that use tax-credit scholarship programs or the education savings accounts, they were actually less likely to believe that education was for preparation for employment and independent thinking, and more likely to believe the purpose of education is for moral formation, and instilling character.

So, there’s definitely a plurality of views, in terms of what parents believe the purpose of education is. And this translates into the way they choose schools. It’s given that private school parents believe that the purpose of education is for moral formation, they were more likely to choose schools that emphasize character instruction, choose schools that had a religious environment. Then contrast that with the charter and district run public school parents, who are more likely to consider academic quality in their decision making process, in choosing a school for the kids. We definitely have a plurality of views for what parents want out of education and that definitely translates into what they look for when looking for schools.

Drew Catt: I found it a little fascinating how the ESA parents had a lot of variety in terms of what they thought the top reason was. Academics garnered 18 percent of the parents saying that it was the most influential quality or characteristic, but other than that, there were only a handful that had at least 10 percent, including the morals character values instruction, the safe environment. Safety being a big thing that we’ve been seeing a lot in news lately. And the individual one-on-one attention, which I think is part of the program design behind ESAs in the first place. Along with the religious environment, instruction and discipline. One of the things that stuck out to me, in terms of these school choosing qualities, was that the traditional public school parents seemed to value convenience, with 20 percent saying the most important characteristic was the school was close to home or work, and 19 percent saying that it was their assigned neighborhood school. Although that could potentially also be a reflection of where their family chose to live in the first place, if that was even an economically viable option for them.

Paul DiPerna: Something that struck me about—and this is figure five of the report—one was the evenness of responses among the ESA parent respondents, but then also that, right at the top of the figure where you see that 44 percent of the charter school parents valued academics. Which far outpaced any of the other parent respondents from the other categories. It’s fascinating and I think it really does lend credence forwards to this, that there is a whole wealth of different reasons why these parents are choosing the schools for their children. And what is a good fit can take on a lot of different meanings.

Why don’t we talk about school climate, which is something that is pretty new for, and correct me if I’m wrong Drew, something that is a bit new for us in EdChoice to look at questions around school climate, and those findings were interesting.

Drew Catt: To be honest, those were some of the things that Albert kind of added into the questionnaire, so I’m going to pivot to him and let him take over talking about the climate results, since that is something that he was more interested in, compared to my interest levels.

Albert Cheng: Although you should be… I kid here—

Drew Catt: I am interested, I just know that you’re more interested

Albert Cheng: Certainly, school climate, this is something that folks in education research focused on for quite some time now, it just hasn’t gotten as much attention in the standards and testing accountability era. Although I sense that there has been a pivot, I think amongst policy makers, with us taking a place in No Child Left Behind, given that states have to incorporate one non-test score-based measure of school quality. I think school climate is something that lots of states are considering to use. Measures of this, and asking student’s parents to complete surveys about aspects of school climate. So, what we asked, just to give you a little more detail about what aspects of school climate we’re talking about here. These are things like safety, what’s the nature of the relationship between the child’s teachers and the parents? Do the parents feel welcome at school? Do the school staff seek parental input on school programs and events, and how things are run at the school? In general, we found quite positive results across the board. I think if there’s any one big takeaway that pops out, is that the positive reports of school climate are among charter school parents.

So, charter schools seem to beat out district run schools and private schools in terms of perceptions of school climates as supported by parents. This is fascinating to think about. I know I’ve done some work with Paul Peterson and other folks at PEPG at Harvard and we looked at, again comparing perceptions of parents between district-run schools, charter schools and private schools. In a recent paper, we argued that charters were closing this gap in satisfaction and school climate perceptions, that the gap that existed between district run schools and private schools. Here in Arizona we have something that’s even more stark, which is that charter schools are actually beating out schools in the other sectors. This raises a lot of questions to consider, what’s going on in these charter schools in Arizona? In what ways are the different from charters in other states? In what ways are the other sectors different from other states? I found it fascinating, again in general, the reports of school climate were quite high across the board but, again, charters seemed to do a really good job on this run.

Drew Catt: I saw quite a few articles and blog posts prior to the survey that did tout Arizona’s charter sector, especially when it came to NAEP scores. But nevertheless, I also was pleasantly surprised to see this happen. As you alluded to Albert, there’s definitely something happening there, across the sector that needs further research to fully understand.

Paul DiPerna: Something that I find really interesting about school climate research, and survey work is that, like you were saying, Drew, its opening that door to trying to figure out what’s happening inside the school building, and it does lead to that research that is more at the micro level, as opposed to the macro. Which a lot of times in policy, those engaged in public policy research and so forth, can keep things in the big picture, 30-thousand foot level. But these kinds of a school climate results really does beg the question: So, what are charter schools doing differently in Arizona for the parents to feel this way about what’s going on there and about the engagement that they’re getting from teacher and from the school leaders? Now it’s fascinating stuff and I’m glad, I think it’s great that, that was included in part of this particular project.

So, maybe shifting gears to thinking about, so going from the school level to programs, so Drew what did you learn from this work about why parents were using programs or not using the school choice programs in the state?

Drew Catt: So, in terms of the latter, like the not using, this is something I’m kind of looking to dive into further in the coming months. We didn’t fully have it in the report. If you’re interested, you can go to the report landing page and click on the top lines questionnaire and see all of the overall findings. But regardless, this is something that I really want to dive into. But when asked why none of their children have used one of Arizona’s educational choice programs, then with the descriptions of the ESA and the tax-credit scholarship, 41 percent of all non-participating parents across sectors—so that’s the non-program private, the charter, the traditional public—41 percent said they were unaware Arizona had an ESA or tax-credit scholarship programs. I found this especially interesting given all the media attention around the proposed ESA expansion in the past 12 months. Then again, I definitely see more education policy related news than the average citizen, a little on the average Arizona citizen.

I’m not really sure what this is saying. Not to fully compare states or anything, but this is something that is something similar to a finding a couple years ago that a co-author and I found in Indiana. Both two very rich choice of environments, different states, different programs, etc. It’s kind of interesting to see that it’s still about two in five of the non-participants saying that they weren’t aware that the programs existed.

Albert Cheng: One of the later things we asked on the survey was where did parents get information about the schooling options. I supposed you hear the parental questions that ask the kind of challenges parents face when they’re looking for a school that would be a good fit for their kid. There’s definitely challenges with that and part of that is just being familiar with what’s out there. We asked on the survey was what forces parents use to get information about schools and a majority of parents, or actually I’ll say the most common option or source of information, were other friends and relatives of the parents. Or internet searches. There are the things that matter, too. We actually found a fair number of parents who rely, got information from other schools, church groups, community centers, or other media sources, like TV and radio. I think this is all kind of underscores that need to sustain a kind of social connectiveness that would empower parents further to really take advantage of the kinds of options that are out there.

Choosing a school is definitely no easy task, and the healthier and more robust we can make our social infrastructure in our community and neighborhoods, I think the better we’ll be at supporting all families that are neighbors.

Paul DiPerna: That jumped out to me, too, just how important connectivity in the social networks of families are so important for informing their decisions. That is pretty consistent when it comes to surveys of parents where friends and relatives always holds a top spot as a most trusted source of information. That really should inform policy makes, and especially policy folks trying to get this information out there, I know that at EdChoice we’ve learned how important getting information in the hands of parents truly is and building that trust. So, it’s not just the information, it’s about also building the trust that works, too.

Albert Cheng: Yeah.

Drew Catt: Yeah, it’s fascinating.

I was extra intrigued in the finding we’ve seen a different level in a different state but the percent of parents that said they—specifically ESA parents—that said they found out about the ESA program from their public district school, their neighborhood school. Which I think just goes to show that there are educators, regardless of sector, that just want what’s best for every single student that they interact with and some of them realize that that’s not always going to be in their classroom.

Albert Cheng: You know, we’re kind of all in this together to figure out how to best meet the needs of all kids.

Paul DiPerna: So, is there anything else that either of you found and anything that we haven’t had a chance to talk about yet that jumped out, in terms of the findings or even ideas for future research that you might be planning on doing?

Albert Cheng: Well, I don’t think we’ve talked that much about parent involvement, I guess this is maybe a slightly new thing for EdChoice, kind of like school climate. For part of our survey, we asked a few questions about the ways parents participated or were involved with their kid’s education. We asked questions about home-based parental involvement. Do parents read with their kids or do math with their kids, participate in community service with their kids? We asked a series of questions about school-based parental involvement. To what extent, what does communication between school and parent look like? Do parents participate in events and activities or even volunteer at their child’s school? These were fascinating findings and we’re asking these just to, again, get a sense of how choice might affect how parents engage with their child’s education.

Yeah, I don’t know, Drew, if you have anything to add about this? I wasn’t struck particularly about any sector differences in terms of parental involvement, but I mean I’d say similar to school climate, maybe charter school parents seem to be more involved on some of our indicators, particularly things about communicating with the child’s teacher or doing math with their kid at home or reading to their kid at home. Certainly the volunteer rates were actually higher among parents participating in those programs so, it’s kind of an interesting first look at this. Also impart with this we did ask whether parents kind of felt more empowered after being able to exercise choice and certainly among users of the ESAs and tax-credit scholarship programs. Over half of parents were indicating greater involvement, greater sense of self efficacy and kind of control over their child’s education. These are things to explore further, and certainly are important in terms of thinking about what choice can do to affect and alter how parents engage with the kid’s education and schooling.

Drew Catt: I think it was important to have those cross-sector differences for those questions, but I’m also really glad that we kind of had for the ESA and tax-credit scholarship families a comparative baseline, if you will. We asked them compared to the school that your child was enrolled in prior to participating in the program, how have your activity levels changed, across all of those things that you just mentioned? Instead of being, an amount of time—fairly often, somewhat often, etc.—it was compared to the previous school much more often. To really try and get into, look how are these programs Changing not just students but how was program participation changing parents? How is it changing the adults that touched the program as well? So, I think those results were definitely encouraging and, as someone who’s studied philanthropy quite a bit in the past, I was definitely encouraged by the findings related to community service and volunteering.

Paul DiPerna: OK, yeah it’s great. So, I’m thinking before we wrap things up, if you guys could pick at least one audience that you’re trying to reach through this work, and kind of thinking through their eyes and from their perspective, what would you say for that audience—whether it’s policy maker or researchers, the media, parents, educators, other stakeholders—what would be a big take away that they should take from this and perhaps even to inform their future activity?

Drew Catt: I would say the audience, first and foremost, I would say if the audience were policymakers and wonks, and part of this is a carry-over of doing a lot of work on The 123s of School Choice here at EdChoice, Paul. But its again taking the same quote from the conclusion of our report that I had earlier, that any one metric for evaluating schools is likely to provide an incomplete assessment. Because it’s not just about one thing or another. Yes, we ask about parent satisfaction but we also ask about parent involvement.

You can’t just zoom in on one aspect of a picture and think that you understand the picture. It’s important to look at all the pieces that come together, and it’s important to ask all the questions of all the consumers. It’s not just asking the students and evaluating the students on a single test. It’s not asking the teachers, asking the administrators or asking parents. It’s how do we really measure any policy and it’s how do we have the full picture and look at everything from every angle? I don’t have the best answer. I’m just saying that it’s important to look at everything from all sides to fully understand it and that’s definitely true when it comes to educational choice. Something that is very, very personal to every single family and for every child in every family. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to anything when it comes to education from what I have seen and from what we have researched. So, it’s especially the folks in Arizona, it’s look at what’s best for each family, not try to decide what’s best for every family.

Paul DiPerna: How about you, Albert?

Albert Cheng: Well, you know I’ve been on other projects working closely with school leaders in various independent schools to work out some aspects of the programing. You know what it was, I think what struck me most in the survey was the plurality of views about what education was for. Some parents expressing how they, their belief that education is mostly preparation for employment, future employment, or independent thinking and we had other parents who viewed education as a moral project. Again, this highlights a plurality of views, plurality of priorities, and I know there’s a pressure that certain school leaders face to want to conform to what other schools are doing.

They like to copy the programming of other schools, the mission of other schools, they ways of doing things to try to attract parents. If I had anything, any bit of advice, and I guess this is kind of coming up in a lot of conversations that I’ve had recently with school leaders, is to avoid the pressure to conform, don’t be, like in Star Trek like the Borg, right? Don’t assimilate. Lots of parents have different things, different priorities, and I encourage school leaders to be true to their mission, true to their work a particular kind of philosophy of education, the means that their schools are founded upon. So, now of course there is room for entrepreneurship and innovation. But it’s also important to realize that there’s a plurality of views out there. School leaders by being true to themselves and being distinctive, can really serve and important need that’s out there. That probably the top thing I would want to lay out on the table from this report.

Drew Catt: And to kind of follow up on that, it’s kind of interesting that that plurality still exists with schools participating in these programs. We’re not seeing, one type of school participating necessarily.

Paul DiPerna: I think that jumps out to me, too, as a reader and really appreciating the work that you both have done for this report, for this project that’s just… It screams out to me that differentiation is needed to meet all these different needs and desires and views about what a meaningful education is for children. This is great. Okay well that’s going to wrap up this edition of EdChoice Chats. For all you listeners out there, be sure to check out the description of this podcast for a link to Drew and Albert’s new report. And be sure to subscribe to EdChoice’s channel on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher. If you have any questions or comments about this or other research publications, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us on social media. You can find us @EdChoice. Thank you again for your time today and for listening.