Guest Column

Parent Complaints: An Untapped Catalyst for Doing Better

by CARLOS L. SMITH

It took me about 30 years of working in public education to experience the sobering, yet no-brainer epiphany that parent complaints can be blessings in disguise.

A common variable in every position I’ve held is that some people served by an organization are going to express their dissatisfaction. And those who experience difficulty achieving resolution to a problem are likely to spread bad press about your school or district.

When parents complain, educators tend to not recognize the latent value or the opportunity every complaint presents. Parent complaints often are viewed as interruptions or impediments to getting our work done. To the contrary, complaints are vital sources of feedback that can assist in decision making for improving our schools. Dissatisfied parents often hold the information we need to succeed.

Revealing Weaknesses
Recently in our 24,000-student district in Columbia, S.C., a divorced, noncustodial father claimed the school his son attended had a copy of a valid court order granting him visitation and education rights. However, he contended his child’s kindergarten teacher and the teacher aide were conspiring with the child’s custodial mother to deny him full access to the child and the child’s educational program.

While the conspiracy theory wasn’t totally accurate, the teacher and assistant weren’t familiar with the language and the intent of the court order. The issue was resolved, and the father was granted full and unfettered access to his child and records of his schooling.

We learned a lesson in this situation: As our students move from grade to grade and from school to school, an annual review of any known court orders or legal documents should be conducted. The results of the annual review should be shared, to the extent allowable by law, with the appropriate staff. Clear and specific guidelines and expectations for staff must be provided.

Another parent inquiry exposed a serious weakness in the school district’s student technician program. The program trained high school students how to repair computers. The parent was concerned her son’s grades had improved so significantly they were almost unbelievable. It turned out that her intuition was correct. The grades were unbelievable because her son had breached the district’s student database and altered his grades. As a result, we closed the breach in the student technician program.

We learned we must be ever vigilant not only of attacks from external viruses and malware, but of the misguided efforts of those cyber-gifted students, staff and others who may be determined to compromise and disrupt our technology systems.

At times, parent complaints can also reveal the strengths in school and district processes and procedures.

Once, a parent bitterly complained that a school administrator had physically attacked her son. The preponderance of the evidence, including video excerpts from the incident, supported the administrator’s declaration of innocence.

Another parent contended school staff had allowed a state social agency to administer lie-detector tests to both of her elementary-aged children without her knowledge or consent. After an extensive inquiry, the children’s story proved unfounded and without merit. The school’s supervision procedures and protocol in interacting with outside agencies were solid.

Customer Satisfaction
Just as businesses compete for customers to survive financially, competition for students and the dollars that accompany them is becoming intense. At the same time, expanded federal and state education accountability now directly connects job security with student academic performance.

Additionally, education options such as private schools, vouchers, charter schools, virtual schools, home schools and school choice offer opportunities for parents to shop for schools for their children. Therefore, we need to astutely examine every facet of school and district operations and find areas where we can leverage competitive advantages. An effective customer satisfaction strategy is one lever used by successful businesses to retain customers and to improve products and services.

Probably every school and school district has a complaint management system. It may be formal or informal, operational by intent or by happenstance.

School system leaders should insist the opinions of parents be valued, even when voiced as complaints. Yet opportunities for parents to express their views and for schools to capture and apply them usually occur by default, not by design. Consequently, parent complaints largely go untapped, with opportunities subsequently wasted.

Managing Complaints
To help our school district start a conversation about parent complaint management, we adopted the use of the Parent Complaint Management System Self-Assessment Tool. The tool was modified from its original form, the Customer Complaint System Self-Assessment Tool, and we used it with permission from the producer, Shaw Resources of Issaquah, Wash.

The assessment tool recently was introduced to the superintendent’s cabinet, composed of the district’s leadership team and including executive directors of schools. We did so to raise awareness of the potential value of parent complaints and to plan a cohesive, districtwide parent complaint management system.

The resulting conversation among cabinet members was robust. Consensus was reached on the need for a cohesive parent complaint management system. Participants were particularly receptive to the possibility of a common complaint management software package that could aggregate and disaggregate complaint information into meaningful data to drive decision making for system improvement.

Public schools and school districts need to emulate this authentic, data-driven aspect of business — strategically capturing, analyzing and then applying complaint data to improve education services.

Carlos Smith is ombudsman in Richland County School District One in Columbia, S.C. E-mail: csmith@richlandone.org