Survey the hard way to understand hard choices

September 5, 2012

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Seth Rosenblatt

Implicit in the role of being a school board member is combining and analyzing multiple inputs into any decision: recommendations from the superintendent and staff, feedback from parents and the community, economic factors, and also one’s sound judgment and (hopefully) constructive dialog among board members.

Most board members will admit to struggling with at least one ingredient in this mix: getting community feedback. Often school board meetings are sparsely attended, and feedback tends to emerge disproportionately when someone is unhappy. How then does a school board get constructive input that actually represents the values and opinions of its constituency rather than just the often self-selected views of those who choose to participate?

This challenge is particularly relevant when boards need to consider budget cuts, which unfortunately may happen again if the tax measures in November fail. One of the methods often employed by school boards is to survey parents, staff, or the community at large to get feedback on budget priorities. Although there are still statistical issues with these efforts (e.g., response bias), surveys certainly gather input from a much broader base. However, I believe that most school district surveys have a fundamental design flaw that causes them to fail in getting actionable feedback as well as to leave constituents unsatisfied that their concerns weren’t heard. Why is this?

I would argue that most surveys don’t ask the relevant – or difficult enough – questions. When you ask parents “Do you value the music program?”, you almost always get overwhelming positive responses. The same dynamic holds if you ask about physical education. Or small class sizes. Or libraries. Or attracting and retaining the best teachers. It’s like asking people, “Do you think puppies are cute?” There are few naysayers. Parents, teachers, and other members of the community tend to rank most programs highly, which is rational but doesn’t give the board any actionable insight on a decision it needs to make. This is because the board’s job is not deciding whether it likes certain programs; its job is to deal with tradeoffs among them. Traditional survey questions don’t reflect this reality.

Rather, school boards should ask tough questions that do reflect this type of tradeoff. For example, “Would it be acceptable to have 2-4 extra children per classroom if it meant preserving the music program?” A much harder question indeed. Although tradeoffs are rarely this simple, this kind of question does get to the essence of the board’s challenge.

A few years ago (during another budget crisis), we posed these kinds of questions to our community. We asked people to weigh tradeoffs among programs that they likely all considered valuable, whether it be music vs. class sizes, literacy vs. counseling, or staff salary increases vs. other programs. We also tracked responses by subgroup – teachers, elementary school parents, middle school parents, other staff, etc. (the name of the respondent was anonymous but they classified themselves by group) – and we then published the results widely.

The results were extremely interesting. Everyone had a hard time with the tradeoffs – there was not a clear mandate in most of these questions. In addition to illustrating that the job of the board was a lot harder than most people appreciated, these questions helped most people recognize that although they may have been most passionate about one particular program, the obviousness of “their solution” was not necessarily apparent to their peers. There were differences of opinions both within a subgroup and across subgroups.

As an illustration of the former, there were often fairly normal distributions of answers among the teacher subgroup, meaning that they were split, for example, on whether it would be worth forgoing a salary increase to avoid increased class sizes. Although it’s very believable that the entire staff wouldn’t be of a single mind on this issue, it is not the normal feedback board members tend to get.

As illustration of the latter, our survey results showed that the parent population was more willing to trade off counseling services, but the teacher population more favored retaining counselors when faced with a hypothetical tradeoff. It reminded everyone that parents may not see the value here, as most don’t believe their children receive such services, but the teachers argued that these services had a positive “network effect” on all children and actually supported the entire school. Observing these differing perspectives gave many parents an appreciation of something they didn’t understand before.

The “hard survey” method can be applied to non-budget issues as well, including discussions around facilities, boundary changes, or other potential hot-button items. It is difficult for a school district of any size to engage constructively with its community, get broad and diverse feedback, synthesize that feedback along with expert judgment and vision, and all the while do it with limited resources and time. The community’s understanding of the true nature of a board’s decisions and the difficult tradeoffs involved will both lead to better outcomes and help build a trustful relationship between a school district and its constituents.

Seth Rosenblatt is the president of the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District, currently in his second term. He also serves as the president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association and sits on the Executive Committee of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Sustainable Schools Task Force. He has two children in San Carlos public schools. He writes frequently on issues in public education, in regional and national publications as well as on his own blog. In his business career, Seth has more than 20 years of experience in media and technology, including executive positions in both start-up companies and large enterprises. Seth currently operates his own consulting firm for technology companies focused on strategy, marketing, and business development. Seth holds a B.A. in Economics from Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.

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