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.

Is Social Media Responsible for Rise in Common Core Opt Outs?

TrustEDOptOut043015Across the country, school districts have reported significant increases in the number of students opting out of Common Core state tests.

In New York recently, thousands of students steered clear of the exams at the behest of frustrated parents. The Wall Street Journal reports that 70 percent of students in the West Seneca Central School District opted out of the tests this spring, nearly double the number who skipped out on the exams in 2014. In other districts, opt outs were up 40 to 60 percent compared with the previous year. Altogether, estimates put the total number of student op outs in the Empire State so far this year at 175,000.

Concerned that too many opt outs will shape an inaccurate picture of school and student performance, at least one state lawmaker vowed to tackle the issue before the legislature adjourns in June.

“I absolutely believe we will take legislative action in the area of education that deals with all of these issues,” Senate Education Committee chairman John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, told the Journal News.

What gives?
The Common Core state standards have long been a lightning rod for criticism. Still, the precipitous rise in opt outs amounts to a curious trend. Objections haven’t changed much since the tests, which align to a federally backed set of academic standards, were first issued in limited release two years ago.

Critics continue to question the standards as a measure of school and teacher performance. Frustrated educators say pressure to raise test scores stifles classroom innovation. Parents, many of whom have ordered their children not to sit for the exams, say they are unclear about the metrics used to evaluate test scores. Others want more precise feedback on student performance.

What has changed is that the growing influence of social media gives educators, parents, students and others a ubiquitous and unapologetically open platform on which to challenge the status quo.

Statewide defiance
In New York City, Common Core opponents, including a prominent teachers union, took to Facebook to protest the assessments. That effort, detailed in a recent New York Daily News report, encouraged parents to opt students out of the tests. Such campaigns appear to have had a big impact on participation.

Mark Crawford, superintendent of West Seneca, told the Legislative Gazette his district also felt pressure from the community.

While the school system did not encourage parents to opt students out of the tests, Crawford said at least one parent organization promoted a boycott. “I think the catalyst for the increase in refusals this year was social media,” he said.

Social sway
The debate over Common Core wages on with little resolution in sight. But the role of social media as a catalyst for organized protest in schools has implications beyond the political powder keg of standardized testing.

Gone are the days when school leaders could set policies, enact guidelines and push relentlessly forward with state and federal mandates.

The advent of Twitter, Facebook and other online broadcasting tools has fundamentally altered the course of school decision-making. Community feedback is essential to the process. Every school leader knows, or should know, that controversial and unpopular decisions will not go unchecked. Social media isn’t just a mouthpiece for parents and others to complain. As evidenced by recent events in New York and other states, it’s also a vehicle by which to galvanize reform.

Which brings us to a critical question: Is your school district doing enough to ensure that it has a voice in that conversation?

Looking for a tool to help you better monitor and respond to community feedback? Start with Let’s Talk!

Why Listening Is Key to Superintendent Success

Credit: ShutterstockIt’s early in 2015, and you know what that means: Across the country, the nation’s school district leaders are busy selling their vision and their plans for the New Year.

In Illinois, Sterling Springs School Superintendent Tad Everett recently met with board members to flesh out his plan for the Vision 2020 initiative. Everett is one of dozens of superintendents across the state who has signed on to support the sweeping reform movement, which would give individual districts more leeway in determining how funding is used to address specific challenges in the community.

Supporters say Vision 2020, which is set to go into effect in 2016, will provide much-needed structure to what is an otherwise scattershot process for many schools and school districts.

“When we started looking around the state, we realized there was no educational plan,” explains Everett in a story on SaukValley.com. “Legislators were reacting to situations. We got proactive and said let’s put together a plan we can give as a platform.”

In California, Cindy Marten, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, is promoting a different reform initiative — with the same name.

In an interview with local NBC 7 News, Marten describes the SDUSD version of Vision 2020 (unrelated to the Illinois program) as a means by which to help local students and their families “rediscover San Diego Unified.”

Don’t just talk…listen
Conducting interviews and speeches is an essential part of any superintendent’s communications strategy. It’s important to get the word out. But school leaders say the real work often happens in more intimate exchanges, by engaging directly with parents and families.

“The conversations about the performance of our school district are happening everywhere all the time,” explains Scot Graden, superintendent of Saline Area Schools in Michigan, in a recent interview. “We found that while we can take care of what is going on in the classroom, it’s understanding what’s going on in our community that’s key.”

Across the country, school superintendents are adjusting to a kind of new normal, where the ability to listen to and engage with parents and other stakeholders is as valuable to their careers — if not, more so — as their command of traditional education theory.

“Our job is changing,” says James Wilcox, who twice served as superintendent of the Longview Independent School District in Texas. “We used to be the lead educator or head educator — or were perceived to be in the community — and that’s just not the way it is anymore. Our main job, as I see it, is maintaining credibility and image and telling the district’s story.”

As a school system leader, how do you value listening in your communications strategy? Tell us in the Comments.

K12 Insight Helps Districts Stay on the Right Path

Over the past few weeks I’ve been able to sit back and reflect on my travels over the year, as I’ve visited dozens of school districts. This is of course the “lull before the storm” due to the fact that I have numerous plane rides and thousands of miles planned over the next few weeks and through the holidays.

The trials and tribulations within our educational system are staggering, with one issue continuing to be of great concern to district administrators everywhere:  How do we reach out and build support?  Right now, many school districts feel “lost in the woods.”

As an experienced outdoorsman, let me tell you what it feels like to really be lost out there in the forest.

First, you begin to question yourself. What are you doing and where are you going?  Second (or sometimes even first), you begin to believe that you know where you’re going and are confident in your strategy,  only to find that you are in fact truly lost and have wasted a good amount of resources – mentally and physically – to get absolutely nowhere.

I think many districts find themselves in this predicament for a variety of reasons.  Most of the time school districts simply don’t have the proper tools to help them navigate through the woods.  I like to remind superintendents that K12 Insight is just like a compass.  It helps you know where you stand with your stakeholders and it provides specific, tangible feedback that helps you plan your way out.  Our comprehensive stakeholder engagement strategy helps you map your way through the dark.

With the holidays nearly upon us, it’s time to once again think about new beginnings and what we can do differently in 2012.  How will your district rise up and be innovative for your children?  How will you tackle the challenges of building trust and civic capacity in your school district?

K12 Insight can help you stay on a well-paved, navigable path, by showing your district how to engage, build support and create a level of transparency never before achieved.

An Individual is Not the Climate

Wow, it’s November already.  That means that many school districts are starting to think about their school site climate surveys.  As I work with district staff to develop and customize these surveys for their particular needs, I’m finding that a critical conversation revolves around the purpose of a climate survey.

I mentioned in a previous post that a common mistake is trying to measure everything in a very detailed fashion, as opposed to being satisfied with broad indicators of the education environment.  Another misconception is that the climate survey is an evaluative tool.  Attempts to make the climate survey into an evaluation tool involve an attempt either to rate specific individuals or to use the survey as a type of self-assessment.

Let’s consider the climate survey as an evaluation of individuals.  When this occurs, individuals within the school — typically the principal, assistant principals and/or guidance counselors — are identified by name.  Questions are asked about how well the named individual performs various aspects of the position; i.e., how well does Assistant Principal Jones effectively address disciplinary problems?  While this approach may provide feedback on perceptions of the individual’s performance, it results in two possible outcomes that are counter to the purposes of a climate survey.

First, when rating an individual, rather than the broader climate, ratings may be influenced by personal feelings toward that person.  For example, Assistant Principal Jones may be well-liked and therefore rated highly, despite rampant student behavior problems.

Second, individual ratings run counter to the goal of a climate survey, which is to develop trust and cooperation among the school’s stakeholders.  If individuals are rated poorly, a natural reaction is for them to become defensive.  And defensive posturing stifles dialogue, reducing the possibility of future cooperation and improvement.

Now let’s consider self-assessment questions and their problems for a survey.  These items are usually stated in an “I” format.  Not all “I” questions are inappropriate for a climate survey, but these items can be problematic when they address positive behaviors that are expected of the respondent.  Because people want to appear positive, they will report that they do everything that they “should” do.  For example, what teacher would not agree with, “I help my students when they have trouble in my class”?  Virtually everyone will agree with these types of questions, regardless of whether they actually do the described behavior.

The results are unrealistically high ratings that provide no useful information for improving the school climate.

The bottom line is that climate survey items should avoid ratings of individuals, either singled out in the evaluative sense or in the self-assessment sense.  I’ll speak in a future post about appropriate methods for obtaining and using these more individualized types of ratings.