What Do Day School Parents Really Think? School Leaders Get Their Own Report Cards
Sound familiar? Not to the 38 schools that participated in PEJE’s Jewish Day School Parent Survey this past spring. The survey, conducted in partnership with Measuring Success, LLC (developers of the Day School Peer Yardstick® Suite of Tools), enabled more than 7000 parents to share their opinions anonymously on a wide range of topics. These schools now have treasure troves of rich data to help them understand parent perceptions. More importantly, through this Survey and the accompanying consultation, school leaders are learning how to interpret and use the data to strengthen their schools. The “report card” they’ve received is a tool to measure progress in key areas as well as to foster more disciplined and sophisticated decision-making.
After a pilot program in 2008 with a design team representing eight schools, the Survey was launched last fall using a web-based instrument. School leaders used templates and creative strategies to attain an incredible average response rate of 77%, with one school managing to get 97% of its parents to participate. In a sign of how donors value school use of data, Community Day School in Pittsburgh even acquired a $10,000 gift for surpassing their target response rate. One explanation for the high response rate is the simple desire parents have to share their opinions confidentially. “Parents really got into it,” said one head of school.
As the megabytes of data flowed in, the team from Measuring Success began their analysis by identifying “the ultimate question,” the concept coined by Fred Reichheld that describes the gold standard of customer satisfaction research: which customers agree to “strongly recommend to a friend” the product or service. Every day school admission professional knows that the biggest influence on parents’ decision to select a school for their child is word of mouth. The Survey accordingly saw likelihood to recommend as the best proxy for measuring overall satisfaction.
Overall, 53% of parents “strongly agreed” with the statement, “If asked, I would recommend School X to other Jewish families I know.” An additional 35% “agreed” with the statement, indicating a promising 89% satisfaction rate among current parents in the Survey. The underlying objective of the analysis is to stimulate school leaders to move more families into the “strongly agree” category. As Sacha Litman of Measuring Success explains it:
The net promoter methodology is designed to convert the “pareve” supporters of your school into passionate promoters, the influencers who will sustain the day school enterprise. They are the ones who will rave about your school and persuade other parents to enroll their children.
The customized Survey Report that each school received identifies a wide variety of factors associated with the “likelihood to strongly recommend” and compares each school with its self-designated peer group, chosen according to factors such as size, denomination, and division. School leaders are then able to focus on areas of educational programming and practice that are most likely to yield growth. This approach represents a fundamental departure from most school surveys. Rabbi Seth Linfield, Head of School at Lehrman Community Day School in Miami Beach, describes his school’s Survey experience:
The really meaningful concept is that of parents’ strongly recommending. This may well be a more fruitful investment than trying to turn around the few parents who feel strongly the other way—just move the neutrals to a higher level [of satisfaction]. This is a paradigm shift from the way we had being looking at things.
Rather than focusing on the “squeaky wheels,” those parents whom day school leaders hear from most often, the Survey provided all parents with a constructive outlet for their feedback and shines a spotlight on those areas that matter most. Leaders can then make decisions that improve performance and/or perception.
Knowing that the quantity of information could be overwhelming to even data-savvy school leaders, Measuring Success conducted six-hour in-person consultations with leadership teams at each participating school. Training school leaders to use the data through experiential learning that will extend beyond the consultation was a critical success factor in this project. We are thrilled that a number of schools have contracted with Measuring Success for additional consultation time.
During the on-site consultation, leaders were asked to articulate hypotheses related to their scores. According to Measuring Success, about 80% of the hypotheses were based on beliefs that were contradicted by the data. For example, one school team was dismayed by a lower than expected score on the statement “I feel part of a social community of parents at our school,” one of the factors correlated with likelihood to recommend the school. After developing a hypothesis to explain the score, they delved into the data segmented by demographic group, and discovered that one denominational segment of their parent body was actually not satisfied in that area, bringing down the school’s total score in comparison to their peer group. By using their Survey Report’s appendix, they were able to identify this segment, and plan strategies to address this weakness. Another school was shocked to discover the range of parent incomes and realized they had been setting their fundraising goals too low. According to one school leader, “The people who were at the consultation were surprised at how their preconceptions were not necessarily correct, and it will definitely influence our plans and focus us.”
When school leaders encountered data they found surprising, such as a relatively low score on the factor related to smooth transitions between school divisions, there was a tendency to rationalize the data. “Well, that was the year when the fifth grade teacher left mid-year,” for example. As one school leader put it: “In the end it doesn’t really matter if it’s perception or reality; the perception will become reality if you don’t do anything about it.” The concept of transparency in communication has received much attention in this year of economic upheaval, and it applies beyond the financial realm. Schools expressed a hesitancy to share data, even when it might reveal strong achievement, such as standardized test scores. This “culture of fear” that came across in some consultations is not helping schools increase the number of parent advocates. Each consultation concluded with school leaders articulating an action plan and a communications plan.
The schools participating in the Parent Survey this past year represent denominational and geographic diversity. Demographic information about parents shows a range of incomes and affiliations. Keeping in mind that the richest analysis is available at the individual school level (these reports are proprietary to each school and confidential), we are able to draw some general insights about day school parents, with corresponding questions and possible implications for schools and the day school field.
- Slightly more than half (51%) of current parents were actively considering, or had recently considered, educational options other than their current day school. The breakdown of other options under consideration (“the most appealing alternative to our school”) might be surprising:
Public school 33%
Other Jewish day school 33%
Non-Jewish private school 25%
Charter/magnet school 9%
Is competition with public school less intense than commonly assumed? If administrators instituted more regular check-in communication with families during the year, would the additional attention reduce student attrition?
- Family affiliation was significantly linked with a parent’s likelihood to strongly recommend a school. Recalling the average “strongly recommend” rate was 53%, consider the following breakdown:
Modern/Centrist Orthodox 49%
Why might Reform families currently in day school be so much more likely to strongly recommend their school than those of other denominations? How can schools with sizable Reform populations engage these advocates to draw more Reform families to day school education?
- Parents care that a school “instills moral values.” Of the various factors correlating with “strongly recommend the school,” this measure had the highest percentage of parents who “strongly agreed” (51%), with an additional 38% of parents agreeing.
- Parents are already pleased with the way schools are shaping their children’s moral development. How can a school leverage its role even more and push for an even greater “strongly agree” percentage? Do parents have the opportunity to witness and celebrate this school function?
- Other research (Alex Pomson) has confirmed that day schools have a powerful impact on the lives of parents as well as children, and the Parent Survey confirms this correlation with parent satisfaction. Yet only twenty-nine per cent of parents reported that they “feel part of the social community of parents.”
Can school leaders learn more from parents about their expectations of building networks and friendships within the day school community?
The Jewish Day School Parent Survey is the most extensive survey of day school parents ever conducted. As day schools continue to mine their Survey Reports to inform decision-making, they are active participants in improving their school in the ways that matter most. Making data-based decisions rather than relying on anecdotes and hypotheses is a critical leadership skill, and the Parent Survey makes that process accessible even to leaders without backgrounds in quantitative analysis. Parents know how important report cards are for measuring their children’s progress—now school leaders have their own tool to evaluate achievement. ♦
 In response to the critical question about recommending the school to other Jewish families, 12% of parents answered one of the following: “neither agree nor disagree,” “disagree,” or “strongly disagree.” The Day School Peer Yardstick Benchmark Report identified 12% to be the average rate of student attrition, suggesting an interesting consistency across data indicators.
Bonnie Hausman, PhD, is Senior Program Officer, Research and Evaluation at PEJE with responsibility for the design and management of the Day School Parent Survey. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suzanne Kling is PEJE’s Communications Officer. She can be reached at Suzanne@peje.org.