Charters, vouchers and DeVos: Are your schools poised to rise or fail?

By Suhail Farooqui, CEO, K12 Insight

Today, our schools face the defining challenge of a generation, perhaps their entire existence. Until five years ago, few dared utter the words “market share” in the context of public schools.

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Suhail Farooqui is CEO of K12 Insight.

The term simply did not exist. Even now, there are those in schools who would swear it doesn’t.

But, as a new administration takes over in Washington and a newly minted secretary of education rolls out an agenda fueled by choice and school vouchers, education leaders face an inescapable reality: Like it or not, competition is coming to America’s public schools.

Public school advocates say schools should focus on serving students, not looking over their shoulders at the competition. Choice advocates say alternative schools wouldn’t exist if public schools were doing a better job at schooling.

Here’s the thing: Choice is not about pitting public schools against alternative schools. It’s about helping students and families discover the education that’s right for them. For millions of Americans, public schools are that choice–or, could be.

Educators in all schools, public and otherwise, must embrace a choice mindset–one that says we will earn the trust of every student and parent who enters our doors and we will figure out a way to keep them and we will keep them. In systems where students and families chose out, educators should return to the ones who they’ve lost and ask what they could have done differently.

It’s time to stop running scared. Public school leaders, this is a call to action.

A total school experience

Whenever we talk about improving schools, instinctively we look to classrooms. Every student deserves a quality education and every school should offer one. But if you think education alone is the cure, you’re missing the bigger picture.

The school experience extends beyond the four walls of the classroom. Every interaction you have with parents and students and teachers is an opportunity to win them over, to show them why your school system is the right choice. You need to build your brand. I’m not talking about media buys and billboards. That stuff is expensive and it’s beneath you. At its core, marketing is about telling the story of your success. That story starts where it should, with the people you serve every day.

The best decision you can make is to systematically engage your stakeholders–be it parents, teachers, students or staff–in honest conversations about what’s working and not working in your schools. That system rests on two fundamental pillars:

  1. Velvet-glove customer service
  2. Deep listening to help you manage critical issues on the horizon

No.1 Velvet-glove customer service

Plenty of school leaders bristle at the notion of parents or students or teachers as customers. Schools teach; they don’t sell. Truth is, schools perform customer service every day. Students come to class, parents call with questions, teachers and community members email. Sometimes they vent on social media. You need a way to bring all of this feedback together, to effectively measure the critical nature of each issue, and to respond with care and timeliness.

We have data from more than 200 school systems. If a parent receives a response from their child’s school in 24 hours or less, that parent, on average, will score that interaction an eight or nine out of 10. If the same response is issued 48 hours later, the average score drops to two or three out of 10. Research shows that parents don’t have to agree with your decision. But they do need that validation of being heard. This is the difference between broadcasting information and fostering meaningful engagement.

No. 2 Deep listening

Inviting feedback is important, but there will be times when you need to go deeper than that. Understand what teachers and parents and students expect of you annually. Dedicate time each year to ask your community a series of well-thought-out questions. Give people plenty of ways to respond to those questions, in different languages where needed. Once you’ve compiled the data and you’re ready to act, explain your choices clearly and make sure parents and teachers and others know how their feedback contributed to your decisions.

Make an effort to connect with those who have left your schools. Consider an exit or alumni survey to get a sense for how well your schools prepare students for their future, or why families chose out in favor of other options. What you learn from these conversations will surprise you.

The debate over school choice rages on. But, through a combination of academics and a commitment to service, the great hope here is that we can argue less about what types of schools are best, and focus more on creating personal experiences that yield winning outcomes for students and families.

What do you say? Are you ready to make feedback matter?

K12 Insight currently works with more than 400 school districts to create schools of first choice for families and students. Email me at sfar00qui@k12insight.com and we can chat about the challenges you are facing.

Suhail Farooqui is president and CEO of K12 Insight. 

Master Social Media in Schools With These 4 Steps

K12InsightDefinitiveGuideCoverMention the words social media in a room full of school leaders and you’ll be met with more than a few reservations: It’s too new. There are too many risks. I don’t know how to twit or tweet, or whatever. There’s got to be another way.

To the contrary, says Luvelle Brown, superintendent of the Ithaca City School District in upstate New York, social media is the way. Brown took that message to nearly 80 colleagues during an annual meeting of Empire State superintendents earlier this week.

“We have no excuses. We have to be active on these tools as instructional leaders, to give people a sense of what we are thinking and where we are,” said Brown during the New York Council of Superintendents fall meeting in Saratoga Springs. His words are the foundation of a new online guide designed to help the nation’s school leaders harness the power of social media to improve community engagement.

The aptly named Definitive School Leader’s Guide to Navigating Social Media acknowledges some hard truths—mainly, that school leaders still struggle to balance the inherent risks of communicating on social media with the tremendous benefits that these ubiquitous tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, now provide.

In addition to highlighting many anecdotal ways in which Brown and other school leaders have successfully improved community engagement with the aid of technology, the guide outlines four strategies to help other school leaders harness—and master—the power of social media.

1. Develop a plan
Outline goals for your social media campaigns. Set expectations. And create a process—so that all of your employees know what is, and is not, acceptable social media engagement.

2. Tell your story
Don’t use social media to simply react to negative feedback. Create a bully pulpit. Be proactive. And use the online tools and resources at your disposal to paint a positive picture of the good work under way in your school or district.

3. Encourage dialogue
Schools are great at pushing out information. But these days, there is no such thing as a one-way conversation. Use social media to engage parents, students, teachers and others in meaningful dialogue and use the results of those conversations to improve the quality of education across your school or district.

4. Avoid pitfalls
No denying it: social media has risks. Starting a Facebook or Twitter page might open your school or district up to the possibility of negative comments or feedback. But social media has its benefits, too. Knowing about these threats early, while they are just starting to make the rounds on social media, means you can head off a controversy before it ignites into a full-on PR crisis.

Just how much can a commitment to social media improve the reputation of your school district?

Brown says his district has become so adept at using social media that many community members now default to the district’s Twitter and Facebook pages to fact-check education news in the local press.

Ready to harness the power of social media to build stronger relationships in your school district? Download the Definitive School Leader’s Guide to Navigating Social Media and get to work.

Parents Want a Bigger Say in Education. Why Not Give it to Them?

Parents Walking Son to SchoolYour school district puts a lot of effort into parent engagement. Town hall meetings and parent-teacher conferences have historically been among the most popular ways to make moms and dads and guardians feel heard.

A couple of years ago, most parents would have been fine connecting with school leaders at monthly in-person meetings. If their child broke the rules, or struggled to make the grade, perhaps they got a call from the teacher or the principal or came in after school for a chat.

The goal was different back then. Parents just wanted to be kept in the loop. Larger policy concerns were reserved for school board meetings or the PTA. Then came email and social media. New channels of communication created wholly new expectations. These days, parents want more than a monthly status report on student progress; increasingly, they demand a say in school decision-making, from the classroom to the front office to the football field.

Making parents a priority
A recent story in Education Week details a nationwide push toward more inclusive parent engagement in schools.

Several school systems have launched entire departments dedicated to improving the school-parent connection. Some states have gone further, evaluating teachers on their ability to include parents in the education of their children.

“Instead of constantly knocking on the door, I feel like the door is open, and we’re invited to the table,” D’Lisa Crain, administrator of the Family-School Partnership Department for the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nev., told Ed Week.

Administrators for the Seattle Public Schools recently held a special meeting on the subject of better parent engagement. While the school district has always made an effort to inform parents of its choices, at least one local group said those conversations need to happen earlier and on a more regular basis.

“We have tons and tons of community meetings,” Stephanie Jones, executive director of Community & Parents for Public Schools of Seattle, told The Seattle Times. “We have very little community participation in the decision-making.”

Is your school or district under pressure to include parents in critical school decisions? Looking for a better way to get feedback from the school community? Town Hall meetings are nice to have. But they won’t get the job done. What you need is an always-on solution—and, no, we’re talking about email. Click here to learn more.

Time for Schools to Get Serious About Beating the Competition

Outstanding red pencilThe debate over school choice barrels on. Proponents view the movement as a hard-nosed tactic to spur improvement in under-performing schools. Critics say stiffer competition threatens to make bad institutions worse.

No matter on which side you stand, one consequence has become increasingly difficult to ignore: Fewer enrollments often mean leaner budgets for schools.

That’s what happening in Los Angeles, where education leaders recently green-lit an aggressive marketing campaign to keep students and families from defecting to newer, seemingly more attractive charter schools and other alternatives.

Local radio station 89.33 KPCC reported that charter school enrollments in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) have more than tripled since 2006.

“We are still in a very precarious situation,” school board member Steve Zimmer told a reporter for the radio station after the vote. “How do we attract families who have increasing choices?”

LAUSD is not alone. School leaders from Wisconsin to Nevada have been forced to adjust to an environment where competition can siphon students, and the state and federal dollars that follow them, away from public schools—this, at a time when many education budgets are already scraping bottom.

In Nevada, Gov. Brian Sandoval recently signed a bill that would allow some 450,000 students enrolled in the state’s public schools to attend private schools with vouchers paid for by the state.

Back in California, KPCC reports that LAUSD loses upwards of $10,000 every time a student leaves the school system for an alternative option.

Board Member George McKenna says the new effort, which includes print brochures, radio and television advertising and other marketing tactics, is intended to establish a level of comfort and familiarity between parents and families and the school system.

“If they know you and trust you, they’ll come to your school,” McKenna tells KPCC of parents and families. He says competition is not something many in the public school system have had to contend with before.

Lead by example
Marketing is one way to attract parents and students to your schools. But when it comes to building trust, brochures and advertisements go only so far. Increasingly, educators find they need to lead by example.

One such idea is to foster better, more open conversations with parents and other members of the school community. Long considered masters of outbound messaging, schools are increasingly focused on the inbound, including fielding questions from community members and responding to stakeholder concerns that crop up online and on social media.

Online surveys help school leaders better understand the needs of stakeholders and new communications tools, including mobile and online apps, fuel smarter decisions based on real feedback from parents, teachers, staff, students and others.

Where these tools don’t exist, some frustrated stakeholders have taken to creating their own measures. At Whitney High School in Rocklin Unified School District near Sacramento, one mother developed a mobile app to improve communications between educators and parents.

Money is tight. And it’s only going to get worse if more students decide to enroll elsewhere. Don’t wait for your parents—or worse, your competition—to develop a better solution. Start thinking about what you can do now.

Finding a Cure for Initiative Fatigue

businesswoman sleeping on stack of books

A teacher walks into the doctor’s office. “Doc, I don’t know what’s wrong, but I feel tired all the time. Just totally drained.”

The doctor performs a thorough physical exam and asks a series of questions. “How many more weeks of classes?”

“Two.”

“Bet you can’t wait for summer.”

The teacher nods. “Especially this year. With the Common Core and these new teacher performance metrics, it’s hard.”

“So they’ve got you doing a lot of new things at school then?”

“Seems like there’s a new requirement every day.”

“I see.” The doctor makes a couple of notes and looks up.

“What’s wrong with me, doc?”

“It’s called initiative fatigue. And your my fifth case this week.”

Spend a day or two walking the halls of your neighborhood high school and it’s apparent the kind of year it’s been for the nation’s teachers. Cutbacks and new testing requirements have taken their toll. From the front office to the classroom, everybody everywhere is ready for a break.

A couple of months to reflect and recharge might seem like the perfect antidote. But the reprieve is only temporary. The new school year promises to usher in a fresh set of priorities and requirements. Getting faculty and staff to buy into these reforms—whether it’s a new online testing model, professional development, performance evaluation, or other change—necessitates fresh stores of motivation and energy.

Author and education researcher Charlotte Danielson recently explored the link between initiative fatigue and classroom reforms. Though Danielson’s research, explained in this Education Week article, focuses on the Common Core, her findings are applicable to other systemic initiatives—a new technology project, for example.

While change does not come easy, Danielson says most educators are up to the task—provided that they understand what’s expected of them and are equipped with the skills and resources to get the job done.

“There is significant recognition that new adjustments will require perseverance and even struggle,” writes Danielson.

Across the board, educators said training was essential to their success and that, whatever the project, they needed time to adequately familiarize themselves with the content. They also sought stronger measures of personal mastery and access to advice from experienced peers who had achieved previous success.

Want to get faculty committed to and excited about a new reform on the books for next fall? Take the summer to thoroughly assess every facet of the program. Then ask yourself this question: Am I giving my staff the tools and resources they need to succeed?

If the answer is yes, you might have a cure for initiative fatigue.

Master Community Engagement With These 3 Steps

Table full of icons and palletsBetter communication is a top priority for school district leaders.

It’s a common refrain among administrators, “If only we could get parents and teachers and students on the same page, committed to the same goals—oh, the work we could do together.”

School leaders have spent countless hours and much money developing strategies and programs intended to reach out to and connect with disparate stakeholder groups.

An open and honest pipeline of community feedback is fundamental to a school or district’s ability to build trust and drive positive change in classrooms. But simply opening the floodgates to let in information is not a recipe for success.

You have to have a mechanism for listening to and thoughtfully responding to critical members of your school community. It could be teachers. It could be parents. In many cases, it’s students. Anyone in your community who stands to be affected by the decisions you make.

There was a time when much of this dialogue took place face to face through regular town hall meetings. But in an age where social media, including Facebook and Twitter, enables parents and others to voice their opinions, informed and otherwise, at the push of a button, school leaders need solutions that promise to connect with stakeholders where they already are: online.

A tougher challenge
Setting up dedicated school-owned social media accounts to monitor and respond to feedback would seem an obvious solution. But, as countless school leaders have already discovered, social media can be a difficult, often inherently risky platform on which to engage your school community.

Few subjects ignite more passion than those that concern our schoolchildren. The slightest misinterpretation of an online statement or act taken out of context can fuel a public relations crisis of epic proportions. More than a few good school principals and district superintendents have watched their careers evaporate under the weight of seemingly innocuous online gaffes.

If setting up a solution for listening and responding to community feedback is the first step toward bringing school leaders and members of their local communities closer, developing a replicable process to use these tools respectfully and with discipline is the difference between failure and success.

So, what can school leaders do to ensure their foray into social media is met with a positive response? These three steps are absolutely critical.

  1. Develop a system. Every school needs a system for listening and responding to community feedback. Give parents, teachers, students and others a safe way to reach out and connect with you online. Create a listening station to actively monitor different social media and flag comments about your school or district. Pause before you hit the reply button and be sure to always formulate a safe, effective and respectful response.
  1. Create a process. Once you’ve got an effective system in place, you need to develop a process that everyone who interacts with members of your school community can follow. Empower the right people within your school or district to respond to comments and feedback. Set clear parameters and guidelines so that faculty and staff are accountable for responding to members of the public in a timely fashion and ensure that everyone in your organization knows what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of an effective online response. And don’t forget to track and monitor the data and feedback you receive from local community members. Analyzing that information will help you make better, more informed decisions.
  1. Train the heck out of faculty and staff. Training is critical. Make sure every member of your staff understands the overall goals of your communications effort up front. Each person should understand their role and how their contribution affects the long-term success of the program. Make sure everyone involved is comfortable using whatever technology you choose. If a teacher needs extra training on how to use social media, provide it. If an administrator wants clarity about the information that you plan to collect from the local community, give it. Get to the point where you feel comfortable moving forward together, across the entire organization.

Looking for a communications tool that brings these three pillars and more together in a single solution? Let’s Talk! is something to explore.