I'm compiling our annual School Climate Survey completed by staff, students and parents. This survey provides us with valuable data that we use to identify trends, establish focus, and set goals for the remainder of the school year while we look ahead to 2012-13. We've been completing this survey for ten years at Solon Middle School and have made a variety of changes to our building structure as a result of what we've learned.
So what have I learned over that ten year period? Let me start with the changes to the survey itself.... What was once a paper and pencil survey - is now completely on-line. What was once a week's worth of tallying and calculating - is now automatically calculated and graphed with live data. What once used a sample of our students and a handful of parent responses - now reaches out to 100% of all stakeholders. Technology has changed nearly every aspect of education over the last ten years, including the way we seek input. Twenty-four hours after sending a mass e-mail to parents, providing them with the link and a brief explanation of the survey, I'd already captured over 75 parent responses from a building of just over 400 students.
It is evident that not only is it essential for school leaders to stay abreast of advancements in technology, and attempt to keep up with the digital natives roaming the hallways, but also to accommodate the learning styles and communication preferences of parents and community members. The immediate survey feedback I received was proof to me that a good number of our parents rely on technology (and not simply limited to e-mail) as a part of their daily lives. They are savvy, educated adults who function best, and most comfortably, in a real-time world. They don't want to wait to see what Johnny brings home in his bag - they want to see his bag now. Communication, however, is a topic of its own for another day.
After years of looking at our climate survey data, it reinforces in me that we all see things a little differently based on our unique perspective. We give exactly the same survey to staff, students and parents, so obviously there are parts of the survey that any individual or group would not have the background to answer accurately, but in the interest of consistency, we ask anyway. As a general rule the trend data has shown very little change within each group - regardless of the area addressed.
However, equally consistent is the discrepancy when comparing responses from each of the groups on virtually any given topic. While different perspectives are a benefit, how can we effectively work together to solve a problem if we don't agree on the magnitude - or don't even see that there is a problem at all? Data helps, but it's still not the sole answer. For most of us, if I'm in the minority, the numbers don't help me - I need to SEE the problem.
Lastly, what I've learned as a result of our climate surveys is, "don't ask if you don't want to know." For starters, we've trimmed down the number of items over the years. If it isn't data we want to know, or need to know - don't waste people's time. If it isn't something that leads to change - or at least meaningful discussion - don't ask.
However, at least from a leadership perspective, the bigger issue is simple - "if you can't handle the truth - don't ask." I want to know the truth - even if it stings. As a school leader, it is too easy to chalk up a random complaint as "just a disgruntled parent/teacher/student." However, if the data tells me something - then I'd better listen. I owe it to the organization, our staff, our parents, and most importantly - our kids - to listen.
I haven't shied away from any negative responses in our survey, in fact, I thrive on the "comment box." I've found that sometimes words speak louder than numbers - after all, even the loud minority (no matter how small) is a part of our learning community. Their voice does matter, and if I can make an adjustment in what I do, or put something in the back of my mind in how I deal with all stakeholders - I will.
I believe so strongly in the quality of information we receive from our climate survey that we made a couple of other changes this year. We added a scaled down version as a fall survey - partially knowing that spring time might not be the best time to capture people's attitudes, partially to get a mid-year assessment on our building focus, but also so that we could add a classroom component. So last fall - all students essentially 'graded' their teachers based on our district priorities. I'm happy to report that the majority of our staff savored the opportunity to examine their practice, and most importantly - adjust to meet the needs of their learners.
I'll be back with more on this topic once I've had some time to chew on the data a little.