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New York Provides Lessons in Studying School Climate

Guest post by Michele Molnar of K-12 Parents and the Public.

Ask parents what they think of their child's school, and mostly they will give a positive response, says Lori Nathanson, research associate at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, New York University.

"Teachers are better reporters of variations between schools," she explained in a phone interview today. Nathanson is a co-author with Meghan McCormick and James J. Kemple of "Strengthening Assessments of School Climate: Lessons from the NYC School Survey (2013)", which was released earlier this month.

That ability to distinguish makes teachers' opinions more relevant for progress reports, "where you are giving one school a grade and the other school a grade," she said. "Parents' and students' opinions still matter for those scores," but they could be weighted differently than teachers' opinions for progress report purposes.

"It's common in every parent survey I've ever seen that parents generally feel very satisfied about their [children's] particular school," Nathanson said. "There's a greater difference of opinion of parents within a school, than between schools."

In other words, parents within a single school might have a wider range of opinions but—when averaged—a favorable opinion of the school emerges, which compares to parents' average favorable opinion of the same grade level schools.

So-called "school climate surveys" are routinely conducted in school districts around the country. New York City's school survey is second only to the U.S. Census in the size of its sample—in 2012, 476,567 parents, 428,327 students, and 62,115 teachers completed the NYC School Survey. The Research Alliance looked at what kind of information can be gleaned from the survey, and its analysis revealed that the survey itself is generally too long.

All parents and students in grades 6 to 12 and all teachers—more than 80,000—are asked to respond to the surveys. Parent response rates (49 percent in 2010 and 53 percent in 2012) did not approach the same levels as student and teacher response rates, researchers found. "Thus, the representativeness of the parent survey results is more in question. However, it is important to consider that, historically, response rates for parent surveys in large school districts have been estimated at 30 percent for similar district-sponsored surveys," the assessment authors wrote.

"By comparison, the parent response rate in NYC is high. The district has made it a priority to increase parent response rates, which have risen steadily over time," the researchers found.

Nathanson said the survey results are used in many important ways that school administrators can act upon, and parent input is vital for determining a wealth of information like whether parents believe a child is safe in school, and how well parents believe schools are communicating with them.

Earlier this year, we reported that Harvard and SurveyMonkey teamed up to produce the Parents Survey for K-12 Schools.

Schools and parent-teacher organizations can use the results from that parent survey to direct their parent-engagement efforts more effectively, according to Karen L. Mapp, a lecturer on education at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and the director of the education policy and management master's program there. It gives "parents and schools more decision-making power about how to more effectively help their kids excel," she said.

See our full coverage of parent empowerment issues.

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