Research Insights: Why Parents Choose Independent Schools

Winter 2019

By Amada Torres

Independent schools are facing a new educational landscape. Schools are impacted by rapid changes in the makeup of their student and family populations, the emergence of multiple school options, wealth disparities, the needs of the global economy, and the new role of technology in every aspect of human interaction. Given these changes, how can independent schools evolve and adapt to meet families’ needs? A deeper understanding of what drives the demand for our schools is a first necessary step. To that end, NAIS conducted research with parents.

The Jobs Study

NAIS researched what parents are trying to accomplish by sending their children to independent schools using the Jobs-to-Be-Done (JTBD) methodology (click here for the full report, and read more about the theory that helps get inside buyers' minds). A JTBD is defined as the progress a person is trying to make given his or her particular circumstance. It includes an understanding of the functional, emotional, and social characteristics of the desired outcome the person is trying to achieve. One of the key aspects of the JTBD methodology is the belief that parents do not buy school products and brands, but rather they “hire” and “fire” schools to perform a “job” for them. Because JTBD interviews are based on actual behavior and include the true hiring-firing criteria and trade-offs parents are willing to make, the process can identify what is truly important to them and what influences how they behave versus how they say they will behave.

For this research, we conducted close to 50 interviews with parents whose children recently enrolled in, moved out of, or were accepted to but did not enroll in an independent school. Our research with parents uncovered four Jobs:

Job 1: When a school is failing my child, either academically or by not providing a safe learning environment, help me find a school that will address those obstacles so I can ensure that my child will not fall further behind and will eventually thrive in school.
Job 2: When I have a child who is intelligent and emotionally mature, help me find a school that will ensure my child’s continued growth so he or she will fulfill his or her potential, mature, and be prepared for college.
Job 3: When a school is focused almost solely on test scores and academic curriculum, help me find a school that will focus on my child’s social and emotional development, so I can be sure that my child will be a well-rounded and productive member of society.
Job 4: When my child has talents that must be cultivated and I have a select set of acceptable colleges, help me find a school with an excellent academic program and outstanding reputation so I can ensure that my child gets into one of the select set of schools and fulfills his or her potential.

Parent Perspectives

To better understand these Jobs, let’s compare the stories of Fred and Kate. Fred has a daughter in third grade, and he is getting concerned that she is struggling to keep up with reading assignments. She was embarrassed when she was called on in class and couldn’t read the text aloud. She was diagnosed with dyslexia and started receiving some extra help, but the school is not providing the attention she needs to get back on track. Classmates are teasing her, and she is beginning to dread going to school. Fred needs a school that can give his daughter more attention (small class sizes, extra tutoring, an individualized learning program). He doesn’t want her to fall behind or hate learning. He doesn’t want to feel like a bad parent.

Let’s compare that to Kate’s story. Kate graduated from Harvard and met her husband there. Their son is in sixth grade and is exceedingly smart, placing regularly at the top of his class. The boy is also very good at sports and has been winning medals for tennis since he was little. He participates in the robotics program and is part of the drama club. In Kate’s mind, her son is the “whole package.” Her role as his mom is to give him the “best” education, one that will help him attend Harvard or a comparable Ivy League school, for the social status and the perceived advantages that attending an Ivy League institution brings, such as access to an elite network and job opportunities.

Fred will be a parent in Job 1, while Kate will be a parent in Job 4 (see the “Job 1” and “Job 4” below for more about these mindsets).

Now, let’s compare the stories of Matthew and Amy. Matthew has a daughter who used to attend a K–8 school and just graduated from eighth grade. He knows his daughter still needs to mature and is concerned about the many distractions she may encounter in a high school with kids from very different backgrounds. Instead of focusing on her studies, she may be distracted by the social aspects of school. He would like a school that will continue to academically challenge his daughter while keeping her focused.

Amy has a son who is starting kindergarten this year. Amy’s mother was taking care of him while Amy was at work. The boy already knows his numbers and letters. Amy is concerned her son is too used to being the center of attention and may be a bit selfish. She feels like her son is ready to interact with other children and wants to expose him to different kids. She wants a school that will also focus on the social-emotional learning of children and will teach him to be a good member of society. Matthew is a Job 2 parent, while Amy falls under Job 3 (see the “Job 2” and “Job 3” below).

Next Steps

How can you use this Jobs information to move forward strategically at your school? First, know the makeup of your market and find out what Jobs your current parents are in. During the admission process, listen more carefully to what parents are saying and ask more questions to understand parents’ contexts when leaving previous schools, their reasons for choosing new schools, their anxieties, and their desired outcomes.

Understand what Jobs your school can serve well (it’s really difficult to do all four well, but the ideal number will depend on your school). Investigate your alignment with those Jobs through programs and communications, and align your language to parents’ desired outcomes. Understand nonconsumption in your market and how you could package your offerings differently to take advantage of it. Again, listening to unsatisfied parents in other schools can help you create offerings that resonate with those parents.

You can also use the JTBD findings in your discussions with your board or your leadership team. Ask these teams—as well as teachers—what Jobs they think your school does and what Jobs your parent body hires your school for. Think about how those Jobs align with your school mission and vision. What conversations could you have with your board to make sure that your offerings match market demands? Teams can even use their understanding of Jobs to inform conversations with prospective families or to think about how they can use it in admission efforts.

Job 1: Overcoming Obstacles

When parents believe a school is failing their child, they seek a school that will address those obstacles.

  • The school does not help with my child’s unique learning needs or difficulties
  • My child is being bullied or teased
  • I am worried my child is falling behind
  • I am concerned that my child does not like learning anymore
  • I am worried about what will happen to my child if I do not take action now
So that...
  • My child can thrive in a school that will cater to his/her unique learning needs 
  • My child can have the attention he/she needs in order to be his/her best
  • My child will not be teased by his/her classmates
  • My child will not fall further behind
More about:
  • Leaving the current school because it is not helping
  • Reassurance that the school has the capability to help their child thrive
  • A child having had a bad experience in school before
  • Solving a problem quickly or addressing the situation immediately
  • Preventing a child from falling further behind or continuing to struggle to learn
Less about:
  • Having a plan or knowing the plan for a child
  • Having a school that is close to home (within reason)
  • Finding the lowest price option

Job 4: Realizing a Plan for a Talented Child

Some parents want their child to be accepted to a top college, and to ensure that happens, they want a school with an excellent academic program and outstanding reputation.
  • I need a school to challenge my child
  • The school cannot demonstrate a good enough matriculation rate to top middle schools, high schools, or colleges (Ivy League)
  • The school does not have the reputation necessary to get my child into top middle schools, high schools, or colleges (Ivy League)
  • I have a plan that I have been working on to get my child into the best college (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc.)
So that…
  • My child can build his/her résumé for the best middle schools, high schools, or colleges
  • My child will be ready for the rigors of college
  • My child will be mature enough to handle college
  • My child can continue the legacy
  • I can be sure that my child has the best opportunities available to him/her
More about:
  • Getting into the best college
  • Highly educated and motivated parents who believe education is important for their child
  • Schools that have top rankings on a national basis
  • The reputation the school has in the local market
  • Schools that can demonstrate high matriculation rates to the best colleges
  • The school being part of the parents’ plans
Less about:
  • The social and emotional well-being, unless that is required
  • The kid making his/her own decisions
  • Having a diverse environment

Job 2: Finding a Values-Aligned Community

Parents who see their child as intelligent and emotionally mature seek a school to ensure their child’s continued growth so they’ll be prepared for college.
  • My child is intelligent and well-rounded
  • The current school does not challenge my child academically
So that…
  • My child can be in an environment that will help him/her focus and excel
  • My child can be challenged academically, athletically, etc.
  • My child can get a good education
More about:
  • The child being in an environment that fosters his/her growth
  • Providing the child with a meaningful school experience
  • Providing the child with a challenge academically and emotionally
  • Preparing the child for college and helping him/her mature
Less about:
  • Getting the child into the “best” colleges (Ivy League, etc.)
  • Difficulties with learning or troubled situations
  • The parents’ desires for their child, regardless of what the child wants

Job 3: Developing a Well-Rounded Person

Parents seek a school that focuses on children’s social and emotional development—not just test scores and academic curriculum—so they will be well-rounded and productive in society. 
  • The school is not educating the whole child
  • The school is focused on academics, test scores, etc. only and not how to function in the world
  • My child is living in a “bubble” with very little diversity of people, thought, experiences, etc.
So that…
  • My child won’t become a “smart jerk”
  • My child will be well-rounded
  • My child will understand how he/she fits into the world
More about:
  • Helping the child be a “whole/better person”
  • Helping the child integrate into society
  • Teaching the child how to act and deal with others who might be different from him/her
  • The application of knowledge in the real world through projects, etc. 
Less about:
  •  Focusing solely on academic learning or academic pressures
  • Traditional skill-and-drill educational methodology
  • Reinforcement of a specific set of values, morals, ethics, etc. 

Read More

Check out recent articles on the Jobs-to-Be-Done methodology.
Amada Torres

Amada Torres is vice president for studies, insights, and research at NAIS.