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Using Student Voices to Drive Improvement



I was having lunch recently at a national fast-food chain, and before I even received my meal, an employee approached and asked if it was OK to place a customer feedback card on my table. While waiting, I received a text from my car dealer letting me know I would be receiving a rating survey regarding the quality of the oil change I had done yesterday. On the way home that same day, I picked up a few groceries, and on the receipt I was asked to go to the store’s website to fill out an opinion survey to be entered into a $5,000 gift card drawing.


Are retail companies and service firms going too far in their attempts to evaluate their practices based on the customer’s experience? Consider the extent to which a large retail chain in the United Kingdom went to determine whether the chain would expand operations to the United States. The corporate office sent a team to stay in homes of ordinary folks to observe their shopping habits and to study the contents inside their refrigerators.

Proprietary organizations understand that to compete and thrive, they must continually adapt pricing, quality and service based on the perceived needs and desires of their customers. The best example of product evolution can be found in my office drawer where I throw all my old cellphones. My StarTAC flip phone was state of the art in 1996 with a whopping 1-inch by 1-inch screen.

Two Questions

We in the K-12 school business need to take a similar approach by becoming more aggressive in gathering customer feedback and using these data to continuously improve our service delivery. Three years ago, as superintendent of Flowing Wells Unified Schools in Tucson, Ariz., I began running student focus groups in an effort to collect data on the learner experience and then used those data to improve our core mission — preparing students for life after high school. I conducted the focus groups for three years.

Each focus group consisted of 20 students in 4th through 12th grades with representatives from each of the district’s 10 schools. The students were split into four independent groups and didn’t get to see each other’s answers. Although I was in the room with the groups, I did not sit in on the discussion, and each group chose a student to take notes.

I gave the students approximately one hour to answer two prompts: (1) Describe the perfect classroom and (2) describe the perfect teacher. To encourage discussion, I had the students list their responses in short bullet form, and at the end of the discussion, I had them put a star by their most important attribute.

In my initial analysis of the data (which I’ll summarize below), I was struck by two observations. First, I was surprised by how consistent students’ perceptions were over the three years of the focus groups, and second, I was fascinated by how accurate students where in identifying key attributes of the perfect teacher — the same characteristics that world-renowned researchers have validated in hundreds of studies.

No Place Like Home

The major theme that emerged from the focus group responses to the perfect classroom prompt was that students want their classroom to be more like their home. Students are affected greatly by classroom appearance and condition. Descriptors such as “clean” and “fresh” and “neat” and references to colorful, encouraging posters and photos of students on walls dominated their lists. The students also listed these homelike attributes: up-to-date technology, soft chairs and desks organized so students can learn from each other. Almost every focus group suggested having an animal for their class to care for (a class pet!) in their perfect classroom world.

Students were passionate and articulate in describing their notion of the perfect teacher. Understanding, caring about academic achievements, a sense of humor and creativity were consistent qualities listed by students. The fairness trait came through especially clearly, and it was reflected in the following responses: “not too much homework,” “not too little homework,” “not the same tone,” “not mean,” “have fun when teaching a lesson,” “take control when needed,” “strict but not too strict,” “prepared,” “listens to student ideas,” “inspiring,” “hands-on projects” and “doesn’t roll their eyes at students.”

One student captured a strong theme in the data aggregated over the three years when he wrote, “Doesn’t favortize students.” (No, spell check doesn’t like it, but I love the word!)

Genuine Follow-up

Companies that solicit customer feedback and fail to act on the data barely survive. Remember the Gremlin, Chevette and Pinto? I think they make my point.

I presented the raw data from the student focus groups to my district’s leadership team and had them do an inductive sort with the goal of identifying themes. We then developed action steps connected to the themes, which were translated into our school district continuous improvement plan. This data set became part of our district accreditation self-study.

In an effort, for instance, to mirror the home environment, we increased our budget for building maintenance while upgrading technology and HVAC systems.

New-teacher induction in the school district now includes training workshops that address fairness, with the original student response sheets embedded into PowerPoint slides for emphasis. Principals share the focus group findings for purpose of discussions in faculty meetings and in-service programs. With greater fairness as the outcome, the district has reviewed and revised discipline, grading and homework practices.

The bottom line: Like cellphones, school today should not hold to the status quo. Gathering feedback from our ultimate customers, students, is an important way for our schools to evolve and improve.

Nic Clement, a former superintendent, holds the Ernest W. McFarland Citizen’s Chair in Education at Northern Arizona University in Tucson, Ariz. E-mail: nicholas.clement@nau.edu. Twitter: @brainonschool



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