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. 

5 Ways to Master the Art of Community Engagement in Schools

Do me a favor. Pull your strategic plan down off the shelf and flip to the section on community engagement. When you wrote this months ago, everything sounded so great. It still does. But is your district poised to make good on its promises in the new school year, or are these just words on a page?

Maybe you’re struggling to create a culture of engagement in your school district, or maybe you’re just looking for one last push to get you to a better place with parents and staff. Whatever your current predicament, there are five ways to tell whether your engagement strategy is worth the paper it’s printed on.

#1 Is community engagement in your district formal or informal?
Is there anyone in your district who has the phrase “customer service” in their title? There should be. If you’re truly serious about customer service and community engagement, you need to walk the walk–just like you do for academics, for health and nutrition, for transportation. Create a cabinet-level position and hire an experienced leader who understands the value of student and parent experiences. You can talk about community engagement all you want, but if no one owns that responsibility, if you don’t clear a seat at the table, you’re guaranteed to come up short.

#2. Is your community engagement siloed or systemic?
Conversations about your schools happen everywhere, all the time. Does your district have a system for actively monitoring and responding to feedback across departments? It isn’t good enough to have a responsive food services manager, or a prompt transportation chief. True community engagement requires a total organizational commitment to customer service-from the central office to the classroom. More important, you need a way to share all of that information. Enough with the silos already. Time to break out the sledgehammer and go with a systems approach.

#3 Is success anecdotal or is it based on real KPIs?
Compliments are awesome and superlatives make us feel all warm and fuzzy. But nicely worded letters do not provide an accurate picture of community engagement in your schools. Business owners make a big fuss about key performance indicators, or KPIs. The term sounds like it was ripped from a marketing textbook. But there’s a reason so many people get so worked up about measurement: It works. Do you know the average amount of time it takes your district to respond to parents? On a scale of one to 10 (10 being the best), where would your teachers and staff rate your district in terms of its responsiveness? If you can’t put numbers to your goals, how do you expect to improve? Want to get serious about community engagement? You absolutely need KPIs.

#4 Do you invest in professional development and training for staff?
You’ve got a plan for how to engage your community. There’s only one problem: Nobody outside of your cabinet knows what role to play. It’s easy to draft a mission statement and a vision for how you want to engage your community. It’s much harder to turn that vision into a practical application by which change actually happens. That’s because change doesn’t happen in a vacuum-not in schools. If you want your strategy to stick, everyone needs to understand their role-and know precisely how to accomplish it. If you’re not willing to invest in training and professional development, stop reading and put that strategic plan back on the shelf where you found it.

#5 Is your engagement strategy homegrown or expert-driven?
What’s the saying, “You don’t know, what you don’t know?” Well, that applies to community engagement too. If your school or district is committed to customer service, that’s great. But that doesn’t make you an expert. The good news: A handful of school leaders and experts have done much of the heavy lifting for you. Rather than waste time trying to figure things out on your own, team with someone who’s been where you are now. Find a colleague who’s run the gauntlet ten times over. Expertly pinpoint best practices and proven successes with as little experimentation as possible. And focus all that innovation where it will do the most good-in the classroom!

Ready to take community engagement from concept to practice this school year? Click the image below for a free evaluation of your school’s engagement strategy.

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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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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.

Competition is Heating Up; What Is Your District Doing About It?

CaptureK12 education is no stranger to adversity. Years of declining budgets make it difficult to adequately serve students. Divisive politics muddy the waters on accountability. Antagonistic community groups consistently stand in the way of progress.

Now a new report out of New Orleans suggests that schools in several communities face another adversary: themselves.

In spirit, the national school-choice movement seeks to give students who attend underperforming schools access to a higher-quality alternative education, whether through vouchers to local charter schools or open enrollment at neighboring public schools, among other options.

The goal: incentivize struggling schools to step up their game — or risk losing students.

But the study, from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, suggests schools in the Big Easy spend more to fend off the competition than to improve academics.

This story in the Washington Post points out that of the 30 schools surveyed for the study, 10 tried to attract students by putting a charge into struggling academic programs. That’s compared with 25 schools that ramped up marketing for existing programs, with few if any academic improvements. Extracurricular activities were used as incentives. In some instances, public schools recruited individual students.

Huriya Jabbar, the report’s author and an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, asserts that such tactics underscore a fundamental weakness in the school-choice movement, and hints that more oversight may be necessary.

“If schools, like firms in other markets, can choose to compete in ways other than improving their products — even in ways that violate district policies — a more significant role for a central authority may be warranted,” Jabbar writes in her report. “Without some process to manage the current responses to competition like student selection and exclusion, New Orleans could end up with a less equitable school system.”

Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has become a leader in school choice. In 2014, NPR estimated that as many as 9 in 10 students attended privately run charter schools there. But it’s hardly the only place in the country in which public schools have been forced, for one reason or another, to confront the specter of increased competition. In Florida, pending legislation would allow parents to send their children to any public school in the state that has space. A report in the Tampa Bay Tribune notes that at least 20 states have laws that require public schools to accept students from other school districts.

What’s your take on school choice? Does it drive improvements or create disparities? Have you considered surveying your school community to find out what it thinks? Something to think about.