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Teachers Better Gauges of School Quality Than Parents, NYC Research Says

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

But if you want a more accurate gauge of how one school compares to another, teachers are far more reliable sources, said Nathanson, a research associate at the alliance and 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. The report examines the responses of parents, teachers and students to a survey conducted by the city schools and offers an analysis of some of the survey's strengths and shortcomings.

"Teachers are better reporters of variations between schools," she explained in a phone interview. Nathanson is a research associate at the alliance and 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 of schools more relevant for progress reports, New York City's accountability measures "where you are giving one school a grade from A to F 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.

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, such as 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.

For more information on this topic, see our full coverage of parent empowerment issues.

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