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How to make your next school survey count

Every school district relies on surveys to gather feedback from their communities. Unfortunately, most school surveys get a failing grade.

But there is hope—that is, school districts can still make their surveys count.

That was the message delivered by Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Dana Bedden during an online event on the topic earlier this week.

The bottom line, says Bedden, surveys should be a conversation with your community. To create a useful dialogue, administrators need to understand the needs of their communities up front, ask the right questions, and do a better job managing expectations.

Looking for a good way to get input from your school community? Before you create your next survey, consider these takeaways from a Q&A between Dr. Bedden and other participants at the event.

Survey goals are important. What are some examples of goals that other schools have set for climate surveys, for example?

The key to setting effective goals is making sure they are SMART—aka, specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

Dr. Bedden says his schools set goals three ways:

  1. By releasing an initial survey, identifying a benchmark, and then setting standards based on that benchmark.
  2. By measuring the amount of positive feedback among participants about a particular theme (think school quality or parent engagement).
  3. By using pre-existing goals to set a baseline for success, then adjusting those goals accordingly.

“In the absence of having any type of frame of reference to begin with, in some areas we just had to get our first survey out and let that be the benchmark,” explains Bedden. “And then, go from there.”

A survey is only as good as the number of responses it receives. What’s the best way to gauge an acceptable response rate?

It depends on the number of participants you’re reaching out to, the way you’re distributing your survey, as well as the survey topic.

For parent responses, 15- to 25-percent response rates are typical. Bedden says two previous school districts he worked at—one with more than 20,000 students and another with more than 30,000 students—saw survey response rates hover around 10,000 parents.

Surveys are about making people feel engaged. What can school leaders do to connect with their communities and ensure that parents and others see their input as important enough to share?

Before launching a survey in his district, Bedden says he spends a lot of time out in the school community working what he calls “the circuit.”

“You need to market that you’re going to do this [releasing surveys],” explains Bedden. “And you market it by talking about it when you enter a district.”

Incorporating the idea of community feedback and the importance of survey participation in presentations you make to local community groups is key to laying the groundwork for community participation, he says. PTAs or PTOs, business advisory councils, and social groups, such as the local Kiwanis club, can make for powerful allies.

Most schools are great at collecting data, but don’t always know how to use it. How do you turn data into change in your schools?

When a student engagement survey showed students were unhappy with school lunch choices, Bedden and his team looked at lunch sales in combination with anecdotal information—literally looking through the trash to see what food students where throwing away—and used that information to conclude that changes in the school lunch program were needed.

“That data for me in this case validated a concern,” explains Bedden.

What can you do to make sure your next school survey is more than just a glorified exercise in data gathering?

For starters, watch our free webinar, “Why Most School Surveys Suck—And Yours Don’t Have To.”