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Choosing the Right School: And the Survey Says…

April, 2011
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Every parent looks for the telltale signs: Is the teacher bright and focused? Are kids walking to class with a sense of purpose? Is there an excitement for learning?” - Davis Guggenheim

Choosing the right school for a child can be a difficult and complex affair. There is no doubt that schools exist for learning and so it should follow that schools with the best academic program or performance will attract the most students. Student learning and achievement is a multifaceted process involving school culture, teacher-student relationships, motivation, discipline and more. School choice, it seems, may be an equally complex course of action. As choices in the international school scene expand and diversify, it is interesting to consider the factors that families consider when making a choice for their child. 

What are the strongest factors for families considering a place of education for their child? How do factors such as tuition fees, facilities, curriculum, location, reputation, school culture, teacher quality or academic success play a role in a family’s decision? How do these factors change with the age, religion, nationality and financial situation of the family?

It may seem obvious that school choice is closely related to academic performance. Schools with the highest standardized test scores often attract the greatest number of students. However, since learning is such a complicated affair, there are a host of other factors that come into play when families choose a school. One recent study in the UK cited school environment and teaching facilities as being the leading factors in school choice. Family dynamics and cultural background will also play a role in the decision. For example, a highly disciplined father will look for a disciplined school environment. “The first thing I considered in choosing a school for my kids is discipline. This is because when a school is disciplined, every other thing will fall into place, including academic performance” (Okafor, 2009). Investigations by Business Day (2009) revealed that most parents do not base the choice of schools wholly on academic performance. Instead, it was understood that environment and facilities play more of a role.

In their advice to parents on choosing the right school for a child, Patrick Bassett states that peer groups should not be overlooked. In choosing a school, parents should place a high value on their child’s peers. “When considering the quality of better schools, too many parents miss one of the most essential drivers of student and school achievement: the peer group and kid culture at a school” (2009). Bassett suggests performing the “cafeteria test” at the school under consideration where a parent observes not only classrooms but also more casual settings like the cafeteria. Does the parent see kids with whom their child would feel comfortable? Does the parent see groups that they’d like their child to avoid? How do students speak to one another? How do they interact with adults? Ultimately, Bassett suggests, a parent should and will often choose a school where the groupings are few but healthy, where it’s cool to be “smart,” where the athletes also participate in the arts and the artists in sports, and where everyone strives to perform academically. 

Education is and always should be student-centered. School years may be challenging for a child but there is no need for them to be unbearable. In fact, school should and can be an enjoyable place where students are happy. Student happiness and learning are clearly related. In several studies it was found that the happiness of the child was a crucial consideration and that academic criteria were significantly minimized (Boultona, P. & Coldrona, J. 1991). Davis Guggenheim, the director of a recent documentary on education, reflects on school choice for his own children; “I’m hoping – no praying – that each of my kids gets a good teacher; that the school is safe; and that the staff has high expectations for every kid” (2010).

The literature seems to suggest that parents value the human aspects of schools more than academic results, but perhaps these two are closely related. Do students succeed more in a place where they feel welcome, safe and are valued? Much research still needs to be done with special focus on current international schools. How can international schools meet demands from various cultural and religious groups? Do parents and children place higher importance on academics or on moral and personal development? How do great schools seek to promote both intelligence and wisdom in their students?

In an attempt to unravel some of the mystery behind choosing a school, we asked over 200 people to rank 12 factors that influenced their choice. The factors were given values ranging from extremely important to completely unimportant using the survey pictured below. Once the survey was complete, a weighted mean for each factor was calculated by assigning numeric values to responses (5 = Extremely Important, 4 = Important, 3 = Neutral, 2 = Unimportant, 1 = Extremely Unimportant). This method allowed us to rank the factors from most important to least.

The quality of teaching staff was by far the top choice, selected as extremely important 76.6% of the time with a weighed mean of 4.76. Curriculum and courses offered rank second (4.51) and religious and moral values ranked third (4.303). The size of the school (3.243) and the nationalities of the student body (2.973) were ranked as the least important factors in school choice.

School Factor
Weighted Mean
1. Quality of Teachers
2. Curriculum or Courses Offered
3. Religious and Moral Values
4. Reputation of School
5. Price of Tuition
6. Size of Classes
7. Location
8. Success Record of Graduates
9. School Building and Facilities
10. Athletic and Extra-Curricular
11. Size of School
12. Nationalities of Student Body
The survey revealed that families seek quality education that values the whole person and not merely academic knowledge. None of the school factors were indicated as being ‘unimportant’. Healthy lifestyles, appropriate religious or moral values and a wide variety of skills and experiences modeled by approachable teaching staff all contribute to a quality education. Most families seek a school where their children will thrive in a challenging and yet safe, warm culture. 

The data showed consistently that the highest factor for consideration in the choice of a school is quality of teaching staff. Exactly what parents and students consider as a quality teacher is beyond the scope of this study, but it remains as an interesting topic to develop for future research. Teaching quality is difficult and yet not impossible to quantify. The quality of teaching may depend on the relationship between the student and teacher, which is very difficult to predict and nearly impossible for a family to consider before enrolling in a school. Davis Guggenheim (2010) reflected after his own search for a school: “Parents know that these debates boil down to a relationship between a child and a teacher, and that relationship has the power to instill a love of learning.”

If teacher quality is the most important factor in a school, shouldn’t the highest portion of a school’s resources be directed towards recruiting, developing and maintaining a quality teaching staff? When parents consider and investigate a school for their children, do they take time to meet the teachers or, more importantly, have their child meet the teachers? Many potential families are shown school facilities and provided with information about test performance, graduate success and perhaps school demographics, and yet all of these factors rank relatively low when families reflect on their choice. How can a school’s marketing team efficiently show potential families the strengths of a school and appeal to what the family truly values?

The perfect school may not exist, but with careful research it is possible to find a school that is a good fit for each student and their family.

By Scott Antonides 

Scott is teaching at the International Academy of Beijing, and you can still find his online research on School Choice at: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/K38WXFV

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