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Informing School Decisions with Survey Data: A Practical Approach

A survey is a pre-conceived and structured interview. Although it is a structured interview, it can ask probing, open-ended questions. Learn more about survey data and how it can help inform your decisions.

Making decisions in the best interest of your community starts by understanding your stakeholders’ perceptions, experiences, and needs. 

What do they think about critical issues, such as equity, school quality, and strategic planning? How do they perceive the effectiveness of key experiences? What would they like to see change in their school or district?

Targeted, research-based surveys are a great way to gather this information — giving you the data and insights you need to effectively understand and support your community.

Below are four ways survey data can help inform key decisions in your school or district, along with some examples to illustrate how.

1. Learn from where stakeholder perceptions align — and where they don’t. 

Not everyone has the same experience in a school or district, especially across stakeholder groups. 

When the same survey questions are asked of multiple stakeholder groups, you can begin to see where perceptions align or differ — which can help you better meet the needs of each group. 

For example, a survey on strategic priorities might reveal a difference in student and staff perspectives around the importance of learning a second language. Students might rank this in the top three skills and abilities for students, while employees rank it in the bottom five. Survey data also can reveal something only one stakeholder group might be privy to — like students identifying drug and substance abuse as a top issue in the district. 

When you see differences in stakeholder perception data, it’s important not to dismiss any input — even if it’s seemingly contradictory. This is a salient opportunity to drill down on the findings, consider where stakeholders are coming from, and use data to create action plans to meet the needs of each stakeholder group. 

2. Identify opportunities for improvement and prioritize your efforts.

As my friend and colleague Dr. Jennifer Coisson put it: “Data is your friend — even if it’s telling you something you don’t want to hear.” 

What you might initially perceive as “bad” news can be the push you need to drive truly meaningful change in your district. 

If your community is brave enough to tell you the truth, you need to be brave enough to look at what the data is telling you, consider if you need to drill down on findings with focus groups or other research methods, and use what you learn to develop responsive action plans. 

“Sometimes when you collect data, you get exactly what you want to see, and sometimes you get what you don’t want to see but really need to see…We have to be brave enough to look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.” 

 — Dr. Julie Helber, Superintendent, Chelsea School District, Michigan

If you are already aware of a potential issue in your school or district, administering a relevant research-based survey also can help you identify the root cause of it. For example, if there is an uptick in family or staff attrition, using a survey to collect feedback from those leaving can reveal some of the key causes — which can then be used to drive meaningful improvements that help retain families, teachers, and staff.

Survey data will also help you understand what issues or changes to prioritize and how to allocate time and resources to effectively address them so you can ensure you’re providing your community with the best possible support and overall experience.

3. Determine what’s working well so you know what efforts to continue or amplify. 

Understanding your school or district’s strengths helps you determine what efforts to continue or potentially amplify to keep meeting the needs of your community. 

A straight-forward example might be data showing your community feels you communicate effectively on Facebook or via email but that there’s room to improve on Twitter or other channels. By analyzing what makes certain channels successful, you can help draft a strategy to improve other key engagement channels. 

Understanding — and having measurements around — where your improvement efforts are paying off can help you continue improving and evolving to meet the needs of your community. 

4. Benchmark your district’s performance against other districts.

Bringing about meaningful change in your community can sometimes require looking beyond your community. 

Seeing how your district stacks up against other districts (especially those of similar size or demographics) in key areas — such as school quality, employee engagement, or student engagement — can also help inform decisions and provide meaningful context to the data you collect within your district, especially when it comes to long-term planning. 

“You have to understand data in context. When we look at growth in isolation to ourselves, then all we can see is that we’re moving. When we look at growth in the context of other school divisions across the state as well as nationally, that’s how we know if we’re really moving forward and making a difference.”

Dr. Jim Angelo, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, Frederick County Public Schools, VA

It’s important to note benchmark data should never outweigh what you are hearing directly from your stakeholders. Rather, it’s another lens through which to understand your findings and identify opportunities to better serve your community. 

Ready to level-up your next school or district survey? Listen to what education researchers have to say about getting the most out of surveys and other research methods this school year or sign up for a free, no-obligation consultation to learn how K12 Insight can support your district’s goals.  


Amy Boehl
By Amy Boehl, Ph.D.
Originally published September 22, 2021 Last updated January 3, 2024