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4 key strategies for strong, purposeful school district surveys

If I had to boil my K-12 surveying advice down to just one word, it would be purposeful

From my experience conducting K-12 research both from within school districts and as a third-party partner, I truly believe that surveys are a great opportunity to engage your stakeholders, collect vital community input, and build strong, trusting relationships that provide school district leaders with the information they need to make decisions.

But doing that successfully requires a strategic approach. You need to ask the right questions of the right people at the right time. 

While that may sound complicated or like a sheer stroke of luck, it’s not either. There are key strategies that you can follow to create strong, purposeful K-12 surveys that generate meaningful results. I’ve outlined 4 such strategies below.

1. Avoid over-surveying by taking a strategic approach

I’ve seen school leaders make this mistake many times in an effort to collect important data. They rush to put out the next survey—unaware of what surveys other departments or school sites might be conducting at the same time—and all of a sudden your stakeholders have stopped participating altogether. 

I recommend getting the right people in the room from the very beginning—when your district is still in planning mode—to ensure a comprehensive surveying strategy that meets the needs of as many departments and schools as possible. In that meeting, you’ll want to understand what data others need to make meaningful change, how they typically collect that data and when, and where there may be opportunities to combine stakeholder surveys. 

Surveying today looks different. Learn how to plan for today, tomorrow, and next school year.

2. Ensure a high-quality survey instrument

When it comes to survey design, I always come back to the term GiGo (Garbage In, Garbage Out). It’s something K12 Insight CEO Suhail Farooqui taught me, and I think it really encapsulates a key concept with survey design. If you don’t pay attention to what goes into your survey, then you run the risk of collecting data that may not yield helpful insights or actionable next steps. 

To avoid GiGo, focus on crafting valid, reliable surveys that are easy to understand. If you confuse your participants, they will confuse you. So make sure your questions are relevant for the survey topic, simply stated, and jargon-free. For student surveys, in particular, you’ll also want to confirm that the questions asked are at an appropriate reading level for your target audience. 

By focusing on what you’re asking as well as how you’re asking it, you’ll have more valid and reliable results.

3. Capitalize on two-way communication

Most people just think of surveys as a means of collecting data, but a good survey is also a conversation with your community. It’s an important opportunity for you to share out critical information, invite input on vital topics, and build public trust.

Address the “why”
In your survey introduction and any promotional materials you may distribute, let participants know why their feedback is being collected and how it will be used. 

Include open-ended questions
Often times in surveys, we focus on close-ended questions. But open-ended items allow you to invite unstructured feedback from participants, which can provide invaluable insight about why they’ve responded the way they did or feedback you may not have otherwise collected. 

Focus on your questions
Each survey item you include creates an expectation with your community. You’ll need to anticipate concerns and manage expectations accordingly. One way to do this is by using text boxes to provide any important contextual information. Done properly, this does not bias results but actually empowers your participants to make an informed decision—which in turn gives you more reliable feedback.

For an example of this, consider the question below. 

A couple of key questions to consider here: Do all of your participants know what Program X is (and will readily recall that information when they’re taking the survey)? Will they know why you’re asking about this particular program (and not all programs) or will they feel you’ve targeted this particular one? 

Without any context, you may skew your stakeholders’ perceptions. They may think that your district already plans to discontinue the program or that it will be discontinued if a majority votes against it (which is especially harmful if some of those participating don’t know what the program is). Worse still, they may draw the conclusion that your district isn’t listening to their survey input anyway—which may affect response rates down the road and lead to mistrust within your community. 

Below, you can see how this question could be reworded to provide additional context to inform participants without biasing them. 

4. Collect information longitudinally and use vertically aligned instruments

This piece is so important in the K-12 space because it enables you as a school or district leader to glean even deeper insights from your survey data. 

Asking the same question of different stakeholders can reveal where perception gaps exist. For example, if you were to ask students and teachers about teachers building relationships with students, you may very well find that staff’s perception vastly differs from the student experience. But you may also find perception gaps by school levels, clusters, or regions—all of which are important to identify so that you can take intentional steps toward further understanding and addressing the discrepancies and improving educational experiences for students. 

If you want to learn more about surveying strategies or how to effectively use surveys for re-entry and recovery, I recommend checking out the national conversation I recently participated in with Veronica V. Sopher (Fort Bend ISD), Corey Gordon (DeliverEd), and Dr. Jennifer Coisson (K12 Insight). You can watch it on-demand here.

About the Author

Dr. Alisha Martinez
Dr. Alisha Martinez is an educational professional focused on improving outcomes for all students. Dr. Martinez serves as a data specialist at Fairfax County Public Schools and teaches graduate-level research and evaluation design courses at George Mason University and the University of Pennsylvania. She received her Ph.D. in Education from George Mason University. Dr. Martinez lives in Virginia with her husband and two kids.

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