There’s a Right and Wrong Way to Handle Community Feedback

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”

That’s Bill Gates talking about K12 teachers in a 2013 TED talk. But isn’t just teachers who benefit from feedback. Gates’ wisdom applies to administrators and central offices too.

No matter where in the school system you work, feedback is essential to your success. Honest conversations help you make adjustments and better serve the needs of students and parents.

But not all feedback is created equal.

As schools lose students and families to other educational alternatives, there is intense pressure to improve the educational experience, both in the classroom and outside of it, through things like customer service. It isn’t enough to simply ask for feedback from parents and staff, writes author and customer service consultant Micah Solomon in Forbes. These days, you have to seek it out.

So how do you ensure the feedback you gather is comprehensive, timely and, above all, helpful?

The only option that works
When it comes feedback, you really only have three options, says Solomon.

  1. Ignore it: Self-explanatory and, also, out of the question.
  2. Reward the squeaky wheel: Pay attention only to the loudest feedback. It’s an option, albeit an incredibly short-sighted one.
  3. Gather, analyze, and react to all feedback. Ambitious? Sure. But it’s really your only choice.

“Consider all customer inputs before extracting what’s important,” Solomon writes. “Whether it’s important because it falls into the fires-to-put out/squeaky wheel category or in a more subtle, longer-term-trend-in the-making/dog-that-didn’t-bark sort of way.”

Support is key
To make feedback work, you need systems in place to support it, says Solomon.

When administrators at the Rockford Public Schools in Illinois decided to make customer service a priority, they started by looking for a way to engage the entire community.

They launched a 24-7 online listening station. The technology, called Let’s Talk!, makes it possible to invite community feedback through the district website while also monitoring and responding to conversations on social media and in other places in the community.

In each case, a staff member is automatically assigned to respond to the inquiry, ensuring that everyone receives a response—no matter what.

It’s all part of CIO Earl Dotson, Jr.’s overarching philosophy: “Do what you say you’re going to do, and hold people accountable,” says Dotson. “Be diligent about making sure people respond to inquiries within the prescribed time.”

In the end, it’s about serving and exceeding expectations. In the age of instant gratification, your community wants and demands fast, accurate responses to questions and concerns. If you fail to deliver, parents and students might decide they’d be better served elsewhere. And you know what that means.

Looking for a few ways to improve customer service in your district? Want to hear more from Solomon and other school customer service experts? Download the School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Quality Customer Service and commit to the need for smarter feedback today.

Rising superintendents agree: collaboration is key

It’s an exciting time to be a school leader.

New classroom innovations, emerging forms of community engagement, and legislative changes, such as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), have school leaders looking to the future.

To stay competitive, every school leader needs to be innovative, adaptable, and quick-thinking. Technology has a role to play. But it isn’t the only factor in the drive for change. In many cases, the impetus for innovation will come beyond the classroom—in the relationships that school leaders keep with their school community.

To encourage forward-thinking leadership, the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) is honoring 25 Superintendents to Watch. To be named among this prestigious list of up-and-comers, candidates must be five years or fewer into their journey as a school superintendent and demonstrate an ability to use traditional and new communications in innovative ways.

Here’s a look at some of the school leaders on this year’s watch-list.

Dr. Ehren Jarrett, Rockford Public School District #205, Rockford, Ill.
Dr. Ehren Jarrett embraces the power of collaboration to increase school attendance, reduce transportation and facilities costs, and improve teacher and school district relations in the 28,000-student district northwest of Chicago. To Jarrett, there is no success without community.

“None of this can be done until we are ready to collaborate,” he told attendees at a Rockford Chamber of Commerce Luncheon in 2014. “We have to reject the leader-follower model. We have to pull leadership out of everybody to get great things to happen.”

Jarrett says collaboration comes in many forms—and not just among staff. True collaboration means engaging your community, be it parents, students, or others, to make smarter decisions. And it means partnering with local businesses and foundations to push programs forward. Just last month, the Joyce Foundation chose Rockford as a regional partner to expand access to high-quality college and career training, a sign that Jarrett’s emphasis on collaboration continues to pay dividends for the district.

Dr. Michael Lubelfeld, Deerfield Public Schools District, 109 Deerfield, Ill.
Dr. Michael Lubelfeld is another school leader who leverages partnerships to help his district innovate. Writes Lubelfeld on his district blog, “innovation has many forms,” including the school district’s ability to engage its community.

Lubelfeld and his team recently launched a 24-7 listening solution called Let’s Talk! to ensure that every person in the district has a way to provide feedback on critical district issues. School leaders use the information they receive from those conversations to make more informed decisions.

Lubelfeld also uses social media to engage his community. For instance, he is co-manager of the Twitter hashtag #suptchat, which allows K12 superintendents to find inspiration from colleagues across the country. For more on Lubelfeld’s work with social media, download The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Navigating Social Media.

Dr. Jamie Wilson, Denton Independent School District, Denton, Texas
Dr. Jamie Wilson is a huge proponent of throwing the rule book out the window and dreaming big. But it’s not his dreams he prioritizes, it’s his community’s.

In 2015, Wilson and his team undertook a massive survey project to better understand the needs of the community. That result was What We Value, a comprehensive report detailing strict parameters by which the district’s schools are accountable to the people they serve.

As Wilson writes in the report: “Through this self-examination and measurement, we hope to create a swell of powerful momentum of continual improvement. We may come from a multitude of backgrounds and experiences, we can all come together in support of our community’s most valuable resource—the education of our children.”

Impressed yet? Check out NSPRA’s full list for more inspiring stories of school leaders committed to community collaboration.

Have any innovative ideas for how to engage your community? Tell us in the comments.  

NSBA 2016: Good Superintendent-Board Relations

It’s the most important relationship in K12 education. The local school board that represents the voice of the community and the superintendent, who is tasked with carrying out the board’s vision.

Both parties share a common goal: to drive better learning outcomes and experiences for students and families. The destination is never in dispute; it’s the route that can put even the most well-intentioned school decision-makers at odds.

When confrontations do come to a head, it comes down to who’s in charge. The school board? The board president? The superintendent?

These debates often lead to political gridlock and infighting, which paralyzes district decision-making and causes educators and others in the community to lose focus.

It’s a long-standing problem—one that befalls even the best school districts. For those that do rise above, the solution almost always comes in the wake of a single revelation: The school board and superintendent might call the shots, but it’s the community that’s in charge.

The quicker you realize this—and begin actively listening to your community—the easier and more productive your job will become. Say nothing for the progress your schools and students will make.

Make each voice count
Dr. Dana Bedden, superintendent of Richmond Public Schools (RPS) in Virginia, credits good school-board relations with helping him stay focused. Such relationships flourish when district leaders and board members focus on engaging the community.

“You have to move past the anecdotes and distractions,” says Bedden. “My goal is to ensure each and every stakeholder that their voice counts.”

Bedden will share his successful philosophy for community collaboration and productive board relations at the upcoming NSBA Conference (#NSBAConf) in Boston.

Want to overcome the pain of political infighting to build a more productive relationship with school board members and other decision makers in your district? Headed to NSBA?

Join him for:

Hope(less) is Not a Strategy: Dismantling Political Gridlock without All-Out Compromise
When: Sunday April 10 at 3:45 p.m.
Where: Room 255

Engage, educate, empower
Ithaca City Schools Superintendent Luvelle Brown is another leader who subscribes to the school of the community collaboration.

Operating according to his three E’s, “Engage, Educate, Empower,” Brown stresses the importance of open and honest dialogues with his school community, be it board members or parents or teachers or students. That means constantly listening—and occasionally engaging in tough but necessary conversations.

Take a quick look at Brown’s social media stream—he’s a big Twitter user (@luvelleb)—and you’ll see images of him with his sleeves rolled up, talking and collaborating with members of the local school board.

Says Brown: “I share examples of our work, and I ask folks to comment: What do you see here that you like? What don’t you like? I’m constantly asking questions on these networks, hoping folks will respond.”

His approach is paying off. Graduation rates in Ithaca are up from 74 percent to 94 percent in recent years. The district has also seen a 63 percent reduction in discipline referrals.

For more about how Brown works with school board leaders, join him at NSBA for:

Want Your Schools to Succeed? Focus on the Only Relationship That Matters
When: Sunday, April 10 at 1:30 p.m.
Where: Room 255

Got a full dance card on Sunday? Catch Luvelle and Ithaca board member Brad Grainger Monday for:

Measuring What We Value: How Vision and Mission Impacts Accountability and Metrics
When: Monday, April 11 at 10:00 a.m.
Where: Room 152

Not going to NSBA, but still want ideas for how to engage your community in meaningful conversations? Our Definitive Guide Series offers tips and advice from some of the nation’s brightest educators. Download our latest installments on social media and customer service, and start making smart reforms today.

Headed to NSBA 2016? Here’s 3 Sessions Not to Miss

Champion student achievement. Declare excellence in public education. Revolutionize board leadership. These might sound like political slogans (it’s that time of year). But they’re also vital goals for K12 school leaders and board members.

This weekend, more than 5,000 school board members, school administrators, and educators will descend on Boston for the 2016 National School Boards Association (NSBA) Annual Conference.

Billed as the conference for public education leaders, this year’s event features keynotes by news anchors and celebrities from Dan Rather to Robin Roberts. Plus, dozens of sessions with some of the nation’s top educators. School leaders and board members will compare ideas and best practices with a singular purpose: To use what they learn to make a difference in their districts back home.

The power of engagement
A point of emphasis at this year’s event is strengthening community engagement.

As school leaders and board members work to improve parent and family satisfaction in their communities, it’s increasingly obvious how difficult it is to make smart decisions in a vacuum. Parents and teachers and students want input into the choices that the nation’s school leaders make. They want and expect a say in how the school system conducts its business.

Mounting evidence suggests that giving community members a voice promotes support, uncovers critical areas of need, and improves overall parent and student satisfaction.

Given this thinking, here’s 3 sessions you simply don’t want to miss this weekend.

Don’t Be a School District of Choice—Be the Only Choice
When: Saturday, April 9 at 12 p.m.
Where: Study Hall 1

Every time a student bolts your district for a competitor, schools and teachers lose precious resources. Veteran education researcher Dr. Stephan Knobloch (formerly of Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia), now director of research and advisory services at K12 Insight, demonstrates how school districts are using community engagement as a tool to win over families, students, and teachers. Are your enrollments declining because of school choice? Find out how a more responsive culture, with a focus on quality customer service, can help your district emerge as the only choice worth making.

How to Stop a School Crisis Before it Starts
When: Saturday, April 9 at 3 p.m.
Where: Study Hall 1

When parents send their children to school, the expectation is that they’ll be cared for, that they’ll be safe. But there is no surefire way to eliminate risk or the possibility of a crisis in your school community. What you need is to prepare. Imagine having an early-warning system to sniff out potential threats or crises before they’re able to spiral out of control. Former school district superintendent Dr. Gerald Dawkins explains how schools can lead the conversation, as opposed to reacting to the headlines.

Why Most School Surveys Suck–And Yours Don’t Have To
When: Sunday April 10 at 12 p.m.
Where: Study Hall 1

Every school district surveys its school community, but not all school surveys are created equal. Brass tacks: Most school surveys suck. Your schools can’t afford to collect data for data’s sake. Especially not now—with the Every Student Succeeds Act. You have to engage your community on issues outside the classroom, be it school climate or grit. In this session, Dr. Knobloch returns to the stage with veteran education researcher David Blaiklock to outline the perfect school survey. Make your next school survey a bona-fide difference-maker for your district, and learn the difference between asking questions, and engaging your community to drive reform.

These aren’t the only sessions you should attend at NSBA. Check back tomorrow for part two of our NSBA preview.

Want to get in the spirit ahead of time? Check out the video below with highlights from last year’s show.

Do You Treat Parents and Students Like Valued Customers? You Should

K12Guide_CustServ_v6_CVRThe best school leaders know that parent and family satisfaction is vital to the success of their districts. They understand that the ability to make parents and students feel heard builds community loyalty, drives trust, and is often the biggest factor that keeps families from choosing out.

Dr. Wendy Robinson, superintendent of the Fort Wayne Community Schools in Indiana, doesn’t just promote the need for better customer service in her district, she embodies it.

Says Robinson: “We have to understand that we do have customers—we’re not a monopoly just because we are the public school system. We have to treat our customers the way customers want to be treated anywhere in the world.”

Robinson is one of several education thought leaders featured in the School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Quality Customer Service. The guide examines why bad customer service is hurting our schools, why it’s important for educators to set goals when meeting the needs of parents and students, and how to foster a culture of quality customer relationships throughout your district.

This culture shift is important—and for many school districts it requires a significant, if not total, departure from the status quo. While good education has long been a hallmark of K12 success, customer satisfaction is not something our schools have traditionally done well, says the guide.

The reason: Many school leaders don’t know what quality customer service looks like.

In addition to best practices and advice, the guide dispels three common myths about customer service in schools:

  1. Schools don’t have customers.
    Schools do have customers. Failing to realize this puts your school or district at a disadvantage. Be more responsive to students and parents and demonstrate the many ways your school has distanced itself from the competition.
  2. Negativity will dominate the conversation.
    Many school leaders fear that inviting community feedback will open up their district to a steady stream of negativity. Although there’s no avoiding complaints, the goal is to create an environment for constructive criticism, occasional compliments, and more inclusive decision-making.
  3. Customer service will detract from classroom time.
    Some educators contend that the time it takes to respond to community feedback is time better spent in the classroom. Customer service does take time. The good news: If done right, most of that investment can be divvied up across teams.

Dr. Robinson says quality customer service is not a choice. “If you don’t listen to, inform, engage, and understand your customers, you run the risk of becoming obsolete,” she contends.

Don’t give students and families a reason to leave your school for a more responsive competitor—polish your reputation and build trust by showing your community just how much you care.

Download the School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Quality Customer Service to start a shift to customer service in your district and change the conversation today.

Want the True Measure of School Climate? Go Beyond the Survey

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released a new guide designed to help school leaders measure and manage school climate.

The guide represents one of the first federal endorsements of school climate as a measure of school success since the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law late last year. Moving to expand the scope of student and school performance beyond standardized tests, education officials, through ESSA, now require schools to consider a mix of non-academic indicators, such as school climate (or overall school experience) and student engagement.

“All students deserve schools that work to ensure safe and supportive school climates in which they can reach their full potential,” said James Cole Jr., general counsel, delegated the duties of deputy secretary of education, in a release about the guide and associated resources.

The guide comes on the heels of new research out of New York City that draws a bright line between a healthy school climate and student and teacher success.

ED’s resource package includes guidance for five key actions required to measure school climate: planning; stakeholder engagement; collecting, analyzing, and reporting school climate data; implementing interventions; and consistent evaluation and monitoring.

The best measure of climate
One of the surest ways to measure school climate is through a well thought-out survey for the entire community, be it students, parents, teachers, or staff members. ED offers several resources and templates to help get the ball rolling. But, as those who have done this work for years understand, an effective climate survey requires more than a prewritten bank of questions.

Dr. Stephan Knobloch, senior vice president of research and advisory services at K12 Insight and former director of research for the Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, highlights four critical differences between intelligent, custom-designed surveys and “canned” survey templates.

  • “Each school and district is different. A survey must reflect the issues and unique needs of their school community,” Knobloch says. Rather than using a “cookie-cutter” survey template.
    Pro tip: Consider consulting academic researchers to develop a sound, research-based school climate survey that speaks to the specific needs and challenges of your community.
  • The questions you choose to ask are important—but so is how you ask them. Are your survey questions clear? Do answer options cover the full range of possible answers?
    Pro tip: Don’t leave room for interpretation. Make sure the wording and dialect you choose is reflective of your community’s natural way of speaking. Be sure to customize each survey to ensure that every question resonates and is understood by your stakeholders.
  • Surveys aren’t just about gathering information; they’re about stakeholder collaboration. The experience of taking the survey is as critical as the data you collect. Give serious thought to how to promote and administer the survey to your community.
    Pro tip: Your next climate survey is only as good as the number of responses it receives. Make sure you do the research and planning up front to ensure the highest-possible response rate.
  • When the survey concludes, make sure you have a clear plan in place for how to parse the data and interpret the results. Be sure to report survey results to those who participated and include them in future discussions.
    Pro tip: Survey findings provide answers to critical questions. But your success depends on how equipped you are to interpret and act on the data. And that knowledge starts with understanding.

Have you considered how to meet the federal mandate for non-academic indicators under ESSA? Dr. Knobloch is available to answer your questions. Ask him here.