Listening to — and Acting Upon — Beneficiary Feedback: A Story from High Tech High

This post from former YouthTruth Executive Director Marny Sumrall originally appeared on the blog in November 2014. It is re-posted here as part of our Rewind blog series.

At CEP, we’ve been talking more and more about beneficiary feedback — who uses it, how much, and why. We believe that one area where listening for this kind of feedback is especially vital is K-12 education, where the voice of students is too often overlooked in educators’ efforts to close the achievement gap. Since 2009, CEP’s YouthTruth initiative has been working with school districts across the country to help them gather crucial feedback from students in order to improve their educational outcomes.

American K-12 education does not have a common, rigorous practice of soliciting and using the views of the beneficiaries that administrators and educators seek to help — their students. Although research has shown that students’ perceptions are empirically linked to academic performance and teacher quality, there are major barriers to widespread adoption of this practice.

At its core, asking students for feedback can be a daunting exercise, both emotionally and practically. Often, school leaders and teachers fear that the survey will become a popularity contest rather than a meaningful measure of learning environments and school culture. Soliciting and responding to feedback can be intimidating in any setting because the insights could be disruptive, as one may learn that decisions or practices are ineffective.

I’d like to provide a concrete example of how one group of schools used their student survey results.

High Tech High is an innovative charter network of 12 San Diego schools serving diverse student populations. They started using YouthTruth in 2011 and have continued asking for this feedback annually, which has allowed them to assess their results in a comparative context both externally — against hundreds of other schools who have used YouthTruth — and internally against themselves in past years.

High Tech High’s leaders and YouthTruth staff have partnered to best support the interpretation and absorption of the student feedback data. Through our partnership, High Tech High has implemented some best practices for engaging student feedback data in their schools.

First, each school leader should explore the survey data before releasing it and should create a clear plan for how to communicate results to faculty and students. Director, High Tech Middle, Nikki Hinostro shares that anticipating the reactions of teachers and staff is vital. “All staff members come together and we look at the data. We focus on specific areas: four areas to celebrate and two areas where we can make progress. Teachers looked at the data in detail to understand how students were experiencing school and what students needed within their classroom experience and relationships with teachers.”

Second, school leaders should be sure to highlight and celebrate the successes, even as they focus on areas to improve. High Tech High found that students often have overwhelmingly positive things to say about various aspects of school and classroom culture. They recommend fostering a culture in which teachers feel encouraged to underscore the school’s unique gifts and strengths.

Most recently at High Tech High, the survey results surfaced opportunities for improvement around the areas of college and career readiness. Based on the data, leaders assessed that the counseling department effectively informed high school juniors and seniors about the college search and application process, but underclassmen felt significantly less prepared to begin the process. Further, while they covered college planning fairly well for the upperclassmen, they were not giving enough attention to overall career planning. This feedback from the students allowed High Tech High’s staff to alter their programming and set measurable goals for improvement. “This year we are going to be having a career day. Also, we are going to be working more with our students about their own personal choices for careers and what they can glean from career-related conversations with adults,” said Hinostro. It also demonstrated that when students are offered a chance to assess school performance, they are capable of thoughtful involvement in the identification of both opportunities and possible solutions.

Finally, in the spirit of creating a true feedback loop, High Tech High recommends taking the time to share back the data with the student community. “We spent time with the students to identify were our results were favorable and where we scored lower and what we did as a response to last year so that students could feel invested in the process. When managed well by the entire community, the process is supportive of overall school growth,” reflects Hinostro.

Through these methods and YouthTruth’s validated results, High Tech High has been able to make specific, measurable changes in their program offerings and school culture. In the words of Ben Daley, High Tech High’s Chief Academic Officer/Chief Operating Officer, this process “has been this very powerful tool for us, in terms of looking at ourselves honestly and critically and pushing ourselves to get better.”

The case of High Tech High shows that everyone stands to benefit from soliciting beneficiary feedback in schools.

Marny Sumrall is the former executive director of YouthTruth.

To read more about High Tech High’s experiences with beneficiary perceptions, click here. Learn more about YouthTruth by signing up for its next informational webinar, “Why, How, and When to Survey Students?” on April 12. You can also follow on Twitter at @Youth_Truth.

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