Character or Success? What Parents Want

What motivates parents when it comes to school choice? In November 2011, the National Association of Independent Schools published the results of its 2011 NAIS Parent Motivations Survey. Not surprisingly, differing educational priorities influence the kind of school that parents will consider for their children.

NAIS identified five basic types of parents in relation to school choice: Parents Who Push; Success-Driven Parents; Special Kids’ Parents; Character-Building Parents; and Public School Proponents.

Of the five parent types, Character-Building Parents are most likely to consider an independent school for their child; in fact, 79% already have a child or children in an independent school. These parents expect strong academics, but a key goal is “that their children will grow spiritually and have a high moral character.” It is no wonder, then, that so many independent schools are increasingly focusing on “character development.”

Episcopal schools have always combined strong academics and meaningful attention to moral and spiritual development. Happily, the NAIS study affirms that Episcopal schools are as relevant as ever. Many parents choose our schools precisely because of their moral and religious underpinnings.

Success-Driven parents are second most-likely to consider independent school. For this group, however, admission to a selective college is seen as an important outcome. Half of their children are already enrolled in independent schools—but half are not.

And herein lays a rub. Theoretically, there are more Success-Driven Parents who might potentially send their child to an independent school than Character-Building Parents, most of whose children are already enrolled.

And if most parents in our school care first about character, but a significant (and perhaps growing) number of parents care first about college admissions and external ”success,” what are the implications for admissions, enrollment, curriculum, indeed the school’s very reasons for being? The differing priorities of Character-Building Parents and Success-Driven Parents identified undoubtedly contribute to tensions between virtue and achievement, between community service and college placement, between God’s time (kairos) and earthly time (chronos) in many Episcopal schools.

The challenge is to get to know the hopes and expectations of parents from the very start and to articulate over and over again the school’s fundamental convictions about education and human formation. Better yet, perhaps we need not accept the dichotomy between “character” and “success” that the survey seems to imply, but instead re-frame the conversation with parents such that moral character and spiritual formation are understood as the very foundation of a “successful” adult life imbued with meaning and purpose.