Thanks to social media, it has never been easier to solicit and receive public opinion.

Just think for a moment about your own experience: How many times in the last 24 hours have you been asked for your opinion or to take a survey? Visit any service or retail website and you are almost immediately hit with “We’d welcome your feedback!” Amazon, TripAdvisor, Yelp, RateMDs, Kudzu, Yahoo! Facebook, Foresee, Rate My Teacher… the list of survey-happy sites goes on.

Surveyplanet, Survey Monkey, Surveypal, Survmetrics, and Popsurvey are just a few of the survey development software companies that stand at the ready to assist you in constructing, executing and analyzing your assessment. The number of available survey tools is escalating. In fact, many website developers are now building a survey tool into their platforms.

So why the proliferation of surveys, opinion polls, and personal review sites? Basically, it’s because most people like to be asked what they think. It makes us feel valued, it gives us a sense of control, and most importantly, we make the assumption that our opinion is somehow going to make an impact on our world.

Given these dynamics, it’s no surprise that many school districts are turning to community surveys as a tool to assist in making some tough decisions. Should you spend your resources on turf for the football field or upgrades to the baseball field? An additional elementary nurse or guidance counselor? Long-overdue roof repairs or a new world language?

Gathering opinions from various stakeholder groups can assist board members and administrators in setting and prioritizing initiatives. If done correctly, your survey will tell you where you have support and where opposition may exist – and to what degree. It can provide insight into how the different factions view the options you’re presenting, and may introduce initiatives you hadn’t even considered.

To Survey or Not to Survey Just because you can survey doesn’t mean you should.  If a community survey is under consideration in your district and…

  • You already know the answers to the questions;
  • You’ve already made a decision; you just want to see how it will be received;
  • You’re launching a survey because someone said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to know…;” or
  • You don’t have the resources to act on the information you may get back.

Don’t do the survey – because if any of the above holds true, you won’t be doing anything with the results.

You will, in effect, undermine the assumptions made by your respondents that their opinions matter and may have an impact on their school district. Consequently, if the lack of action by the district causes a groundswell in the community, the negative repercussions can be significant. Not only have you wasted time and resources on a useless survey, you have now created a public relations problem with your stakeholders because, “the school district doesn’t listen!”

To use the turf vs. baseball field scenario: Let’s say your survey shows overwhelming support for a turf field. However, the district knew going in that it won’t have the funds for the turf installation for years to come, if at all. Why include this item in the survey – no matter how popular you believe it to be – if you don’t have the resources to act on it?

To be clear: This is not to say that you have to agree with what everyone tells you in a survey. If all options have a relatively equal chance of resource allocation, your analysis will indicate the majority position, which your district should announce and act on accordingly. Assuming the survey was done correctly, the respondents should respect the process and, in turn, the direction it sets for the district.

Keys to a Successful Survey So what are the elements necessary for your survey to succeed?

  • Goals and action plans The first thing to do is establish a goal that clearly defines what insights you hope to gain from the survey and a clear plan of what you will do with the results.
  • A survey committee of key decision makers In addition to the superintendent and the board member and/or administrator who initiated the survey project, it should also include those stakeholders most affected by the anticipated outcomes. (School climate surveys are broad stroke and should therefore include representatives of the board, senior administration, and staff from the building level. For more narrowly focused concerns – such as a turf field for the high school – the committee could include the principal, athletic director, president of the Booster Club, and possibly a coach.) Once established, the committee will be responsible for managing the other factors needed to construct, implement and analyze the survey.
  • A reasonable response rate The response rate is a calculation of the number of completed responses as compared to the total number of surveys distributed. A high response rate provides a true reflection of the opinions of your target group, which is critical to having accurate information on which to act. There are many opinions of an “average” response rate for surveys, based on type of survey, industry, target audience, and even how the survey is distributed. Many elements contribute to increasing your rate of response, including the following factors.
  • The appropriate audience Whose opinions do you need in order to achieve your goal? Students? Staff? Parents? Taxpayers? Other influencers? All of the above? It’s important to determine just how finite you need to be. If it’s too broad, you’re likely including opinions from those who ultimately don’t matter for the subject at hand. If too narrowly defined you’re complicating the analysis process with unnecessary data that won’t affect the outcome anyhow.
  • Let’s use the turf field again Do you survey all parents or just those with high school students? Given the relative permanence of the field, young students may also be playing on it. It’s also a ‘big ticket’ item, and the taxpayers will be paying for it. So your audience needs to be broad. What about staff? If you aren’t making this an “either/or,” such as turf or more teaching assistants, the staff probably doesn’t need to be surveyed. Likewise, the student athletes really don’t have a voice in what they play on. So you’ll want to focus on those who ultimately will be paying for the installation and maintenance for years to come.
  • Question format Select the types of questions based on the information desired. There are myriad methods for gathering input and the survey software you select should lead you through the process. Here are the most common:
    • Likert Scale – measures attitudes (“Rate the following from totally agree to totally disagree”)
    • Ordinal – ranks items in order of preference (top choice, second, etc.)
    • Dichotomous – choice is made between two options (Yes/No, True/False)
    • Multiple option – checks as many boxes as applicable
    • Open ended – a comments box (Be sure to limit space if possible since people tend to use this as an opportunity to vent all of their concerns. Also be aware of Negativity Bias (See sidebar above)
  • Number of questions You should limit the number of questions to no more than 10; seven or eight is best. The more questions you have and more complex they are, the longer it will take to complete your survey; thus, the more likely the person will get bored or run out of time. Incomplete surveys are a waste of their time and your resources.
  • Distribution How will you get the survey to your audience? Online? Email? Paper? Offering multiple channels will increase participation, and is dependent on your target audience. For example, if you are surveying all taxpayers, you may be including a number of senior citizens who are not tech savvy.  Offering paper copies or access to computers in the district will increase the participation from this target group. Regardless of the method(s) used, you need to control for respondents trying to take the survey more than once or sharing it with others in an attempt to skew the results. Again, your survey software should offer solutions; most likely, it will mean providing respondents with a unique link that becomes obsolete once the survey is completed, preventing repeat submissions or sharing. Some level of anonymity is lost, but you risk the integrity of your results by not controlling for “ballot stuffing.”
  • Set firm launch and end dates Too much time and your target will forget about it. Too little time and they may miss it. Seven to 10 days is a reasonable time frame.
  • Publicity plan Publicize your survey before you launch, during the response time and once the analysis is complete. Use announcements through local media, the district website, social media, and board of education meetings to alert your audience that it’s coming. Send letters and email the day of the launch that the survey is now open. Send a reminder halfway through, and again on the final day. Make sure to include explicit instructions for survey access and completion, and highlight the importance and potential impact of their participation. Follow up with notices as to where and when the findings will be presented. Then post the final presentation on your website.
  • Evaluation processEstablish your evaluation process and who will be involved and who will be responsible. Your survey may produce a significant amount of data, depending on the number of respondents and the number of questions. Internally, be prepared to share topline results early and the in-depth analysis within a week. Once all the data has been analyzed and reviewed, the board and the superintendent will likely be the ultimate decision makers as to how and when the results will be presented.
  • Public presentation and next steps The presentation team will likely include the superintendent, perhaps a board member and another from the committee. The results should be shared at a board public meeting. Clear, concise and consolidated results will allow you to share the information without getting bogged down in the minutia. Your survey tool should generate easy to interpret charts and graphs, while the open-ended question/s will require more in-depth analysis. For those, look for repetition of terms and only report out on common threads. Do not name names.

Surveys can be a very effective and even efficient tool for collecting and evaluating input from the various stakeholders in your school district. With proper planning, clear objectives and the right tool, you can construct and conduct a survey that will help guide your district with the enthusiastic support of your stakeholders.

… and now for a brief survey: Did you find this article useful? Circle one: Yes No.

Andrea Tahinos is director of communications for Glen Rock Public Schools.