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A new study co-authored by a Brigham Young University economist concludes the federal No Child Left Behind law – with its focus on boosting reading and math scores – misses what parents seek most for their children’s elementary school education: a satisfying experience.

Lars Lefgren of BYU and Brian Jacob of the University of Michigan looked at what makes teachers popular enough for parents to phone the principal and attempt to influence their child’s classroom assignment for the upcoming school year.

Overall, the most sought-after teachers were those who rated highest on student satisfaction, ahead of teachers who rated high for ability to help students improve in math and reading. The analysis appears in the new issue of Quarterly Journal of Economics, ranked the second most influential economics journal by Thomson’s Journal Citation Reports.

“Often parents are not looking for teachers who give the most worksheets and test preparation,” Lefgren said. “They are looking for teachers who will inspire their children by making education fun.”

Digging deeper in the data, the researchers discovered that the type of teachers sought by parents depended on the average income of families living within school boundaries. In schools serving families with higher incomes, the importance of student satisfaction increased while student achievement was not a factor.

“To the extent No Child Left Behind focuses incentives on tests and away from student enrichment, we expect it to be less popular in relatively affluent schools,” Lefgren said.

Those priorities switched places in schools serving lower income families, where parents sought teachers who boost exam scores even at the cost of student satisfaction.

“In poorer schools, parents are looking for a teacher to compensate for the lack of academic resources,” Lefgren said. “They also want their child to be happy in school, but when resources are scarce, student achievement takes center stage.”

Lefgren is quick to point out that a family’s own income level was a non-factor, meaning that rich and poor parents at the same school valued, on average, the same teacher characteristics. A family’s household income did relate to the likelihood of making a teacher request. Parents whose income places their children above the cutoff for the federal school lunch program were more than twice as likely to make a teacher request as families who do qualify for school lunches.

The study is based on principals’ ratings of their teaching staff on a variety of characteristics, including dedication, work ethic, classroom management, relationship with administrators, student satisfaction and ability to raise math and reading scores. The researchers connected the principals’ evaluations with records of parents’ requests for and against the possible assignment of their child to specific teachers.

“One of the really cool things about this study is we capture what parents value based on their choices,” Lefgren said. “We use decisions parents actually make and relate that to characteristics of the teacher to see what parents value most for their children.”

The study combines information from parents and principals of twelve elementary schools from a district in the western United States. The participating school district did not want to be identified in researchers’ publications. Test scores in the district match the national average, and the district’s ethnic and socioeconomic make-up reflects that of a typical school district in the United States.

The study is titled “What Do Parents Value in Education?” and is not the first time Lefgren and Jacob have teamed up on education research. In a 2004 study on school reforms, Lefgren and Jacob found summer school and grade retention yield lasting academic improvements for struggling students.

Writer: Aaron Searle