There is no shortage of parent opinion data. The late George Gallup began polling the public’s views on education 35 years ago, and his firm has been joined by countless fellow travelers in the years since. Much of this data is irrelevant to the current discussion, however, because it deals with means rather than ends. At this point in the process we are interested in determining parents’ ultimate educational goals, not their personal theories on the efficacy or desirability of particular reform proposals.

So what do the polls tell us? Most basically, parents expect schools to prepare their children for productive careers and good, happy lives.[1] To achieve those ultimate ends, parents want their children to accumulate essential knowledge and skills and to develop positive values. The learning environment and physical condition of schools is also of great concern to parents. They want their children’s schools to be safe and healthy, and to maintain studious, drug-free environments.

The Public Agenda Foundation, a non-partisan opinion research firm, recently summarized the findings of its education polls, and included a report on which skills and areas of knowledge parents considered “absolutely essential” for their children to learn. The results are shown in Table 1.

Table 1

Knowledge and Skills Parents Consider
“Absolutely Essential”

Basic reading, writing, and math skills


American history and geography


Biology, chemistry, and physics


European and Asian history and geography


Advanced mathematics such as calculus


Sports and athletics


Source: Jean Johnson and Ann Duffett with Jackie Vine and Leslie Moye, “Where We Are Now: 12 Things You Need to Know about Public Opinion and Public Schools,” Public Agenda, 2003, p. 17.

Public Agenda has also asked parents about the values they wish their children to embrace, and their answers appear in Table 2.

Table 2

Values Parents Consider “Absolutely Essential”





Self-control and self-discipline


Always give maximum effort in school




Financial responsibility


Good nutritional habits




Religious faith


Physical fitness


Appreciation of art and literature


Source: Steve Farkas, Jean Johnson, and Ann Duffett with Leslie Wilson and Jackie Vine, “A Lot Easier Said Than Done: Parents Talk About Raising Children in Today’s America,” Public Agenda, 2002, p. 18.

The preceding tables can provide guidance in assessing alternative education systems, but they suffer an obvious shortcoming: they describe the average level of importance that parents around the country attach to these values and competencies. Priorities obviously differ from one family to the next. While some families might consider advanced mathematics extremely important, others might rank it well below instruction in creative writing or basic business skills. Even when parents place equal emphasis on a particular subject or value, their agreement can hide important differences. Two families committed to their children’s development of religious faith may not see eye to eye on what that faith should be, how it should be taught, or even if it should be taught in school. The ability of a school system to effectively identify and respond to diverse parental demands is thus an important goal in and of itself.

One area in which parents achieve near perfect consensus is in their expectations about the atmosphere and physical condition of their children’s schools. For over a decade, polls have revealed that virtually all parents are very concerned about school discipline, drug use, and violence. This is true across economic, geographic, and racial lines. Parents not only want their children’s schools to be safe, but to offer their children personal attention and a sense of community. As a result, they generally favor schools that are small enough for the students and staff to know each other by name.[2]

A final consideration to close out our basic set of goals is cost containment. It would be pointless to come up with a system theoretically capable of providing an excellent education if it could do so only at a prohibitive cost. Whoever is financing the system, whether parents, other citizens, or some combination of the two, its ultimate success depends on being able to make the most of every available dollar.