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.

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 and we can chat about the challenges you are facing.

Suhail Farooqui is president and CEO of K12 Insight. 

An Engaged School Community Starts With Better Customer Service

The nation’s K12 schools are on the brink, though not for the reasons you might think.

Teaching and learning remains a perpetual work in progress. But a lack of classroom achievement is only partly to blame for the rising tide of parent disatisfaction in public schools.

As educators in Detroit discovered late last year, customer service is another potential deciding factor for families. Mired in bankruptcy and beyond strapped for cash, school officials were desperate to rebuild the Motor City’s once-proud public school system. But they were short one crucial ingredient: students.

Just a decade earlier, the district enrolled nearly 200,000 students. By 2014, a precipitous economic decline, coupled with a growing school-choice movement, in which parents were allowed to move their students out of struggling city schools and into higher-performing options, whittled that number to just 50,000. The district’s operating deficit was $127 million. The city’s plight, described in a sweeping profile in Time magazine, seemed insurmountable.

School leaders needed money. But turning that spigot on wouldn’t be easy. In the public school system, funding follows students, which means the district had to give families more than a few good reasons to come back to school.

District strategy officer Roderick Brown, whose efforts are profiled in detail by Time, created a “war room” in the district office, where district officials would engineer all manner of school system improvements. Academics was a big part of that, says Brown. But so, too, was customer service. Parents and families needed to feel welcomed, listened to. So the district brought in consultants from retail giant Target to show school system officials how to answer phones and communicate more effectively with individuals in the school community.

Nearly a year later, Detroit remains a work in progress. But it’s hardly the only school system in the nation that has invested in customer service as a tool to woo disenchanted families.

The Austin Independent School District in Texas recently made customer service a top priority, even publishing a guideline of acceptable standards for employees to follow when interacting with community members.

Education leaders from Seattle to Florida have publicly emphasized a growing need for stronger customer service in schools. As blue-chip corporations–the likes of Amazon and Zappo’s–work tirelessly to improve the customer experience, there is a mounting expectation among parents and community members that their local school systems exemplify the same die-hard commitment to service.

Nowhere to hide
Customer service is a point of emphasis, but it hasn’t always been a top priority for the nation’s public schools. Before school choice, parents had few options. They also didn’t have access to social media and other online soapboxes.

These days, parents have an always-on outlet to voice their frustrations. If they don’t feel listened to, or if they don’t feel like their concerns are taken seriously, they’re not afraid to hop on Twitter or Facebook or Yelp! and let the world know how they’ve been treated.

School leaders understandably want to avoid such confrontations. To do that, they’re increasingly looking for new ways to engage parents, respond in a timely fashion to community feedback and to get out in front of potential public relations crises before they ignite on social media.

Engaging parents and community members and promptly acknowledging their feedback helps build trust and strengthens the school community. It also saves school leaders from having to shoot down or correct misinformation on social media.

The business world has taught us that consumers are most loyal to brands that listen authentically to their concerns. The modern parent expects to engage on everything from their latest shoe purchase to the quality of their next online delivery. It’s only natural that they have the same expectation when communicating with their schools.

Want to learn more about how to improve customer service at your school district? Let’s Talk! is a good place to start.