Yet the Strategic Plan survey, which has been administered annually for the last decade, is no longer driving critical district decisions, or even factoring into them, Superintendent Don Austin said at the school board's Jan. 15 meeting.
"It's become a reporting of what is, a post-mortem report," Austin said. "It is not a driving piece of information."
The board briefly discussed at the meeting the latest survey results, which illustrate how parents feel about issues ranging from teacher quality and grading practices to communication with the school board and their children's social-emotional experience at school.
Last year saw the highest parent participation of the last four years: 2,648 parents took the survey.
Overall, parent perceptions about communication from the board, school administrators and teachers have remained relatively stable. The percentage of parents who feel positive about communication with the superintendent and district administrators, however, dropped from 64 percent in 2015 to 56 percent in 2018. (The district estimates the margin of error for the 2018 parent survey is about 2 percent.) High school parents had the lowest ratings for communication from the school board last year: Only 34 percent responded positively compared and 24 percent negatively. Satisfaction with communication from the school and district was highest among elementary school parents.
A steadily increasing number of parents said they believe homework assignments are useful and appropriate, up 9 percentage points from four years ago. Parent perceptions about homework load have remained relatively steady since 2015. Homework has been a focus of the district over the last several years as it has worked to better implement a six-year-old homework policy.
The survey shows that parent perceptions of non-academic counseling have become slightly more favorable since 2015: 60 percent of parents rated it positively in 2018 compared to 52 percent four years ago.
High school parents' satisfaction with counseling has gone up, though it's not as high as the overall parent average: 52 percent gave a positive rating in 2018, up from 41 percent in 2015. High school parents' ratings of their children's social and emotional experience at school has remained relatively steady over the last four years, ranging from 48 percent who responded positively in 2015 to 54 percent last year.
The Strategic Plan survey took on a new importance over the last two years. Under a resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, the result of repeatedly violating law and policy in its handling of sexual misconduct, the district added related questions to the survey.
The responses to those questions were not reported in this batch of main Strategic Plan results, but 55 percent of parents rated positively the district's response to complaints of bias and discrimination last year, compared to 48 percent in 2017. Among 305 parents of low-income and minority students, a higher percentage — 61 percent — rate positively the district's response to complaints of bias and discrimination. For this parent group, participation was up significantly in 2018 over the three previous years.
Unlike the parents' survey answers, the students' survey results are impossible to evaluate this year given a significant drop-off in participation. Only 825 high school students took the emailed survey in 2018 compared to 2,549 the year prior. In 2018, fewer than 300 Gunn students filled out the survey and a little more than 500 from Paly.
Chris Kolar, the district's director of Research, Assessment and Evaluation, attributed the decline to poor timing and survey fatigue. The survey was emailed to students slightly later in 2018 — in late versus early May, a month when high schoolers are consumed by finals, Advanced Placement (AP) tests and other surveys as the year comes to a close. (The district learned this lesson about scheduling surveys or exams during this time period after high rates of students opted out of the state Smarter Balanced assessment in 2015 due to its close proximity to AP and SAT tests.)
Paly's and Gunn's student school board representatives said students are inundated with surveys, but there's little to no communication on how the data will be used or why it's important to the district.
"They're just given a survey, and there's not much outcome on their end," Paly senior Caroline Furrier said at last week's board meeting.
Kolar said the district wants to change this and started last year by meeting with each high school's student councils to discuss the results of survey questions related to sexual misconduct.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell, who in 2008 persuaded the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company to help the district reinvigorate its Strategic Plan and develop a stronger community-input process, including the survey, said the district hasn't "taken seriously" the survey in recent years.
"How many people on staff have seen this data before tonight?" she asked Austin on Jan. 15. "I think I know the answer and I think the answer is: 'We did these surveys and we didn't spend any time reviewing the data.'"
The survey needs major revisions, she told the Weekly, but still has value as a "regular measurement tool."
Kolar said the Strategic Plan survey has fallen out of favor as the district has tried to shift to more targeted surveys, such as end-of-year course surveys for high school students to give input on specific teachers and classes. (Feedback about this new survey itself was generally positive, but a pilot period negotiated with the teachers' union has come to an end and hasn't been renegotiated, so it won't be administered this year, Kolar said.)
The Strategic Plan survey "had some big general questions but they weren't linked to anything that in most cases we were specifically doing. It came down to public opinion, and it didn't really give us guidance on how to better operate our programs and what was and was not working," he said.
Austin, who is in his first year as superintendent, presented at a Thursday school board retreat his draft, three-year district plan, Kolar said incorporates much more "real-time data collection" to track and measure progress throughout the year — moving "away from the idea of an annual summative evaluation."
Austin said Thursday that there is no "commitment yet to give the same Strategic Plan survey" this year, but a renamed "community survey" is included on a proposed reporting scheduled tied to his new plan.
Baten Caswell lauded the schedule's intention, regardless of what form the survey takes, to present the results to the board and public as soon as a month after its administration.
Vice President Todd Collins suggested last week that the district change its thinking about the Strategic Plan survey "so we can get the kind of benefit we want, or either stop doing it."
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