Executive Perspective

Treating Parents as Our Customers

by PAUL D. HOUSTON


We are often told that we should act more like a business. Setting aside the obvious problem that children are not widgets, you still are left with the chore of sorting out who the customers are.

One of the greatest problems of American education is a confusion over who we serve. Some would argue that the children are the customers. They sit in the seat each day receiving instruction. Others believe the community, big business, colleges or even the military are the customer since they hire or place the student.

I believe the parent is the customer. Customers are the people who can choose to take their business elsewhere. Students are captive to the process and the broader community must live with the product regardless. Students should be considered the workers since it is their productivity that really counts. The broader community, business and the rest are the shareholders. They own stock in the operation. These distinctions become very important when you understand that shareholders have very different expectations and values than customers. Shareholders want return on investment. Customers want value and service.

Parental Savvy
With this in mind, AASA recently conducted a major poll of public school parents--our customers. And what we found out was fascinating.

First, we found that parents really get it. They have a very sophisticated understanding of their children’s schools and what their children need.

Far too often educators, policymakers and the critics have underestimated parents and their knowledge of what makes a good school or how good their own child’s school is. Our study showed us we underestimate them at our own peril. Parents can be and should be the school system leader’s greatest ally. They want what is best for their children--so should you.

Our study gives us much to celebrate and some things to be concerned about. It provides a clear set of issues for the savvy school leader.

First the good news. Parents of public school children generally are very pleased with their child’s education. They feel, overall, schools are doing pretty well. They see some things we could be doing better, but the general mood is positive and upbeat. They like the idea of public school choice, but a majority believe they already have choice and they don’t see choice as something that would lead to big improvements in their school.

That tells us that years of rhetoric and millions of dollars have not created as much traction on the voucher issue as proponents would have liked. In fact, three out of four never have considered pulling their children out of public schools. They are very supportive of the values that underpin public education and see public schools as the place where common American values are taught and caught. However, that also tells us that one in four has had concerns and should cause us to wonder what we should be doing better.

The study offers clues. For example, the biggest issue for parents is student safety and they feel that disruptive students should be excluded from regular classrooms. But they also want to see that these students receive an education in alternative programs. They understand that learning cannot happen in an environment that is unsafe or disrupted. But they also understand that a society that tosses its problems on the street is a society that will pay a much higher price later on.

Parents want to have meaningful involvement in their children’s education. And to the extent that they feel involved, they are more positive.

One way of making this happen is to provide parent centers and academies in schools. Parents who feel a strong sense of influence over their children’s education are the ones least likely to have thought of removing their children from public school or supporting vouchers.

Good Business for All
While parents understand what many policymakers have not grasped--that tests are useful tools for assessing how well things are going--they don’t think they are the goal. The most important thing for them is to see their children excited about learning. And they don’t want to see the curriculum narrowed only to prepare kids for tests because they know that life is much more than a test. They think we are doing exactly that.

The highest value for parents is to have children who are safe and who are excited about their learning. If that happens they believe the tests will take care of themselves.

Despite the negative publicity schools get, good news resonates more powerfully with parents than does bad news. And the most trusted source of information for them is their own child.

Any good public relations program you have must start with the children. A good start would involve teachers asking children every afternoon to recap what they did in school today and then to ask them what they did that was most exciting. Children who can go home excited about what they did in school are worth more than gold.

Parents want smaller classes, particularly in the lower grades, a good teacher in their classroom who lights their children’s fire, good principals who involve parents in the learning enterprise and up-to- date textbooks.

Superintendents who can design systems to produce these things have job security for life. And that would be good business for everyone.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org