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. 

School Board Members, Are You Keeping Your Promises?

Every school board member makes promises. Promises to change the way students learn. Promises to be more transparent about how the district spends taxpayer dollars. Promises to improve school performance. But one promise is often among the hardest to keep: The promise that parents and others will continue to have a meaningful voice in school district decisions.

Change is a compelling narrative on which to build a political campaign. It’s the follow through where school board leaders too often fall short. Say, for example, your district has 10,000 students. How many parents or guardians is that? How many business owners and other taxpayers have a stake in the decisions you make? Now, think about how few of them attended your last board meeting.

Still convinced you speak for the people? Or are you simply talking to whoever is in the room?

Keeping your promises goes beyond simply inviting public comment during regularly scheduled programming. The entire community has to believe that the school district is committed to actively listening and responding to its concerns.

That might mean inviting feedback on key issues and policy changes. It might mean giving parents and others an easier way to reach out when they see something they don’t like.

Create a service culture
School leaders excel at innovation. All you have to do is walk into a classroom to witness the thought that goes into student learning. Unfortunately, that commitment does not always extend to other facets of the school experience. Take customer service, for example. How many times has your board heard from parents or community members who feel the superintendent or other school leaders failed to consider their feedback or kept them in the dark about a key decision?

You had–and still have–every intention of keeping your promise to give the community a say in school district decisions. But communication gaps between the school district and the people jeopardize that commitment–say nothing for your reputation.

Customer service is not the sexiest of ideas. It hardly gets mentioned in the same breath as, say, student performance, or college and career readiness. That’s a problem.

As much as we all want schools to improve, progress is a nonstarter–unless we find a way to make our communities a part of the solution. That means engaging parents, teachers, students, and others in important conversations about their schools.

To do that, every school leader, board members included, must commit to being responsive to community needs. Parents and staff and students need to feel valued. They need to know that their comments and opinions matter and that the school district has every intention of taking them seriously. That kind of engagement doesn’t happen overnight.

It requires a cultural transformation–the kind of stuff school districts write into their strategic plans, but never know quite how to do.

If you’re serious about keeping your promises, you need to walk like you talk it. That means giving parents, students, and teachers a way to engage with you on important school decisions. It means providing a quality school experience that stretches beyond the classroom.

Interested in learning more about connecting your community with its schools? Click the image below for a free evaluation of your school’s engagement strategy.  

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Don’t Look Now, But Your Last School District Crisis Was Totally Avoidable

Imagine: You’re the head of a large urban school district. The Education Department hands down a new policy directive. You act swiftly and with the best of intentions, issuing rule changes for the benefit of your entire community–or so you tell yourself.

All is quiet. You think maybe your decision went off without a hitch.

A month later, seemingly out of nowhere, everything falls apart.

You show up at a board meeting. Nine hundred of your closest friends are there–more faces than you’ve ever seen in your life.

People are up in arms–literally, waiving them in your face. Not everyone disagrees with your choices. But many of them do. All of them, it seems, question your approach. When were the rules first issued? Why didn’t we hear about this sooner? Were you planning to let us weigh in here?

You stand to quiet the crowd. You assure them that your leadership team is committed to listening to and hearing from every perspective.

Too little too late, they protest. Dissenting voices accuse you of being patronizing. Thanks. But what’s the point of seeking our input if the decision’s already been made? The next day, a dozen news headlines skewer your administration for ignoring community sentiment in favor of a personal political agenda. In less than 24 hours, your once harmonious community is fractured and reeling. And you … find yourself on the defensive.

These fallouts happen every day, in school districts across America.

And the worst part? (Or maybe it’s the best part?) They’re almost always avoidable.

As a school leader, you make a hundred decisions a day. For every choice you make, there’s a surprise you don’t see coming. Maybe you don’t hear about it. Or, perhaps you just don’t have the time to think it through. There are sensitivities to consider–things you couldn’t possibly know, or anticipate.

It doesn’t matter how well-intended your actions, you can’t overcome these weaknesses on your own.

But there is a way.   

Lead by listening
Your district does a superlative job getting its message out. Schools have spent years perfecting the art of outbound communication. But it’s the inbound–inviting feedback from parents and teachers and creating a culture of customer care and collaboration–that separates your schools from the competition.

You might think you’re already doing this work. You probably have a contact us button on your website. Parents and community members can pick up the phone and call, or shoot you an email. At first glance, it seems the bases are covered.

But take a closer look. What you’ll find is that most of this work happens in silos. Feedback comes in to one department and leaks back out again. At any given time, the average school leader has no idea how many parents or students are reaching out to the district with questions or concerns. It’s simply impossible to tell whether you are effectively meeting the needs of your community. What’s worse, you have no way of ensuring that every person who contacts you receives a thoughtful and timely response. Closing that loop feels like a fool’s errand.

Some of the world’s most recognizable brands–the Amazons and the Zappos–figured this out years ago. They raised the bar on customer service. If you have a question about an order, these companies tell you exactly where to go. And they guarantee a response. The school choice movement and the rising tide of competition has, for the first time, brought this thinking to public schools.

A handful of educators have managed to stay ahead of this trend.

Consider the Fort Wayne Community Schools in Indiana. When Superintendent Dr. Wendy Robinson decided last year to cut transportation zones across the district, essentially forcing hundreds of students to walk to school each day, she knew her decision would create an uproar in certain parts of the community.

She wasn’t worried.

Robinson had spent three years inviting feedback from her community on critical school district issues and building reserves of community trust. While not everyone agreed with the policy change, the community embraced it–because Robinson took care to invite feedback and to explain her decision publicly. She did this up front, not after the fact. (Read more about Robinson and Fort Wayne here.) 

As a school leader, you have one of the toughest jobs in America. Customer service isn’t part of your DNA. This isn’t finger pointing; it’s a fact. This is a gut-check moment for all those who work with and in public education. We need to have fierce conversations about how to change the status quo. We need to make customer service and community engagement our No. 1 priority. Because without it, families and students will suffer. And, when they’ve finally had enough, they’ll leave. Nobody wants that.  

We hope you’ll read this message–and that you’ll receive it in the spirit it’s intended. If you want to learn more about how to create a culture of listening and customer service in your school district, we’re happy to offer your team a free consultation. Simply click the image below to get started.

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Your Opinion Matters More Than You Know

Gerland Shoot-023-Edit_largeI was on the phone with my cable provider for an hour last week. I hung up, took a deep breath, and went about my business—or tried to. A few minutes later, I received another call. It was, you guessed it, my cable provider: Did I have five minutes for a phone call about…my phone call?

I’m standing in my kitchen, keys in my hand, about to head out the door, thinking, “Really? I don’t have five minutes. I don’t have one minute. Wasn’t the hour enough?”

“I’m sorry,” I said out loud, to a recording no less, and disconnected the call.

I was agitated with my cable provider for trying to contact me again so soon. But I understand why they did it. Most companies, not unlike most school systems, are terrible at customer service. A few years ago this was nothing more than an excuse. Not anymore. The rise of social media coupled with increased competition has forced business owners, and school leaders for that matter, to get serious about authentically engaging community members and responding to customer feedback.

I read an interesting report online. It said that, in business, it takes 12 (count them) “positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative experience.”

Now, imagine those customers are parents. The school-choice movement has created plenty of options for families. If parents are unhappy with the level of service or personal attention they are receiving from your school or district, they can choose to enroll their students elsewhere. As enrollments tick lower, your budgets do too. Suddenly, this is about more than just your reputation.

At K12 Insight, we’re all about helping schools build and nurture the relationships that power education. If you’ve partnered with us, chances are you did so because you wanted to form a stronger bond or dialogue between your school system and the community, be it parents, teachers and staff, or other stakeholders.

It’s our mission to help you strengthen these relationships. But we can’t do this alone. In the same way that schools rely on feedback from the community, from time to time it’s important for us to hear from our school partners about their experiences.

We know you’re busy. Unlike my cable provider, I promise to never call you while you’re standing in your kitchen. But we would like to hear from you. Some time during the week of June 15, you’ll be receiving an email with our annual customer satisfaction survey. If you could take a few minutes to briefly answer the questions included—it’s pretty basic stuff about our services; we’ll also ask your opinions about our work together—we promise to carefully pore over every answer and comment you submit, and to use that information to serve you better.

Please look for our customer satisfaction survey in your email inbox. Should you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me directly at gdawkins@k12insight.com.

Hope you have a great summer!