Sunday, April 05, 2009

Not enough just to measure 'school satisfaction'

Our public schools are in the news right now, for issues ranging from funding problems to whether principals are "dumbing down" the education process by letting students rewrite tests.

But I've yet to see much discussion about findings that flag much deeper problems in B.C.'s public schools, as identified by the students and parents using the system.

Satisfaction surveys have their limitations, but they still reveal a great deal about how the "customer" perceives a service. Done regularly, they're also valuable for tracking whether customer satisfaction improves as problems are identified and dealt with.

Take a look at the 2007-08 surveys of B.C. public schools, however, and what you'll find are a whole lot of dissatisfied students and parents who have been identifying the same problems in our schools for more than five years now, with virtually no sign of improvement in the areas they identify as sub-par.

Kudos to the B.C. Liberals for initiating the satisfaction surveys in 2003. It's important to be taking the measure of all our systems to ensure they're effective and efficient. I appreciate government that opens itself up to public scrutiny in the interest of doing a better job.

But if we're bothering to ask students and parents whether they're happy with our schools, you'd presume we'd also want to act on what they tell us. Five years of poor scores in several major categories looks to me like we're not doing that.

The satisfaction surveys are given annually to parents, school staff, and certain grades of students. The 18 questions gauge people's perceptions of how well their school is doing in terms of student achievement, human and social development, school environment, safety, computer skills and physical activity.

There are bright spots in the 2007-08 survey. Most students feel safe at school. Most report that their teachers help them with their problems. More than 80 per cent think their school is inclusive and welcoming to people who are "different." At least three-quarters of parents are satisfied with what their child is learning in school, up four percentage points since the surveys first started.

Still, there's significant room for improvement on all fronts, and work to do to understand why satisfaction rates drop so precipitously as students enter secondary school.

Students are surveyed in Grade 3-4 and again in grades 7, 10 and 12. The across-the-board drop in satisfaction as they progress through the grades is striking. Asked whether they're getting better in math, for instance, 81 per cent of Grade 3-4s in the most recent survey agreed. The figure falls to 72 per cent among Grade 7s and 59 per cent for Grade 10s. By Grade 12, only half of the students are seeing improvement.

The downward trend is similar for all categories, and particularly dramatic in the area of school environment. Students who replied affirmatively to the question of whether their teacher cared about them, for instance, goes from a high of 92 per cent among Grade 3-4 students to just 54 per cent by Grade 12. Even parents seem to be aware of a shift in teachers' attitudes toward their children as they make their way through the grades, with 89 per cent of elementary-school parents reporting that teachers care for their child compared to just 71 per cent of secondary school parents.

Much like their children, parents become significantly less satisfied with the system as students get into higher grades. Some of the lowest satisfaction rates for parents are around secondary schools' efforts to prepare their child for a job or college/university.

Fewer than half of secondary-school parents think their child's school is doing a good job of preparing the student for work. Just 57 per cent think their child is being well-prepared for post-secondary. (Those are 2007-08 figures, but the numbers have barely budged since surveys started in 2003.) Students have an even poorer perception of how ready they are, with just 40 per cent of Grade 12 students agreeing that their school has prepared them adequately for the workforce.

The surveys also identify a major gap between school staff's perceptions of how well they're doing compared with parent and student perceptions.

In general, staff members feel strongly that their schools are doing a good job on all fronts (with the possible exception of teaching computer skills, which everyone seems to agree isn't going well).

That's a problem. How can staff tackle the serious concerns identified by parents and students if, in their mind, everything's just fine?

It's clearly not.

To read the full report, click here: http://www.llbc.leg.bc.ca/public/PubDocs/bcdocs/447534/prov.pdf

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