Detroit parents lead education change

Conventional wisdom both here and across the country is that when it comes to k-12 schooling (and a whole lot more) Detroit is the most ossified place. Resistant to all change.  Highly protective of the public school monopoly and unionized workers. Think again!

Turns out that Detroit parents, in unprecedented numbers, actively shop for schools rather than blindly accept the DPS assigned school. We just released the first of its kind in the nation report on Detroit parents as school shoppers. Based on door to door interviews with more than 1,000 Detroit parents we found that 71 percent of Detroit parents have chosen a school other than the assigned DPS school for at least one of their children over the past five years. So much for Detroiters as resistors of change!

There are real challenges in the education marketplace in Detroit. Most importantly too many schools but too few good schools – traditional public, charter and private alike. But parents not willing to shop for schools is not one of them. The report’s lead researchers – Dr. Patrick J. Wolf, Professor of Education Reform and 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and Dr. Thomas Stewart, President/CEO of Qwaku & Associates – found four types of school shoppers: veteran, emerging, potential and unlikely. The unlikely group, those who today and in the future, are almost certain to send their children to their assigned school makes up only 21% of Detroit households with school age children.

The high proportion of  Detroit school shoppers is the headline from the research. Beyond that, other key findings include:

• 55% of students attend their assigned DPS school, 5% a DPS magnet school, 23% a public charter school, 15% a traditional non DPS public school and 3% a private school or are home schooled.

• When asked to list the top three characteristics they look for in choosing a school, academic performance ranked first followed by safety and discipline, then academic program, extra-curricular activities and convenient location. They were the only features mentioned by at least 30 percent of parents.

• The preponderance of Detroit parents are satisfied with the schools they have enrolled their children in. Only 13.6% of parents say that they are dissatisfied with the schools their child attend. This, of course, is in stark contrast to most thought leaders and reformers who view most schools that Detroit students attend – no matter the form of governance – to be substandard at best. The disconnect may be because parents use different metrics in determining school quality. In focus groups parents expressed something between skepticism and distrust of standardized test scores and even grades. Rather they seem to look for good teachers, student interest/engagement and homework as indicators of quality.

• Parents are quite willing to look beyond the neighborhood school. When asked how far they were willing to travel to take their children to school, 80% said up to three miles or more.

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