From the Director: Annual Survey Says

by Vince Durnan, director

A summary of findings from the annual survey of USN families.
For well over a decade, I’ve made a point of sending a quick and simple set of questions to families of USN students after the conclusion of the academic year. The midsummer timing of the appeal is intended to provide some perspective but not wait too long to ask. And in the most recent instance, we may have struck that balance about right—generating more than 340 responses. As promised, here’s a summary:
It’s basically a three-part instrument, with some familiar general prompts about the year just past, then a chance to add specific narrative commentary, followed by a single inquiry about a different topic of particular current interest. The results across those sections combine some consistent data and a couple of fascinating departures from precedent.
On the questions we always ask, we got the answers we always get. It’s actually pretty remarkable, both relatively and absolutely, what we hear when we ask about quality of teaching, quality of communication home, and opportunities to connect here as part of the USN community. The highest marks always come in reference to the “general quality of teaching” prompt, with two-thirds of respondents identifying as “particularly pleased” and more than one-quarter “generally satisfied”—across grade levels and over time. Such was the case once more.
Right next to that result are the “educational experience at USN” numbers, almost point for point, reminding us that our core strength, as seen by families, goes directly to the centrality of teaching and learning here. Fewer than 1 percent of respondents expressed dissatisfaction in those two broad categories—and that’s how it should be. More modest, but improved by 10 percent or so across the years, are the “communication between teachers and home” and the “communication between administrative offices and home” data, still with majorities “particularly pleased” and small single digits of dissatisfaction. And the “opportunities to volunteer” results ran parallel to the communication numbers, with 90 percent pleased or satisfied. But it’s still worth asking, worth checking, and worth comparing year by year.
The narrative prompts about our key strengths, about people and programs meriting special appreciation or more focused attention, are a treasure trove. We mean different things to different families, but the blend of sentiments paints a coherent, albeit eclectic, picture. The total compendium of replies runs for over 500 pages, and I know our division heads are spending quality hours reviewing every one. I share those comments discreetly and carefully, including letting colleagues know when respondents specifically cited work that they’ve noticed. Those compliments can mean the world, and I’m especially thankful for the moments they generate. Correspondingly, we track suggestions for improvement just as intently as we plan our work ahead.
The last survey item, asking about the state of assessment and communicating student progress, offered an uncommonly disparate range of responses. The plurality of sentiment urged us on a gradualist path, as is usually the case when I ask about change at USN. What was different in this instance is the more than 20 percent of responses expressing uncertainty about what different models might even be, asking for more explanation. Combine that with another above 30 percent recommending that we stay the current course or stop thinking about alternatives altogether, and it’s obvious that there’s no groundswell to be on the bleeding (or maybe ever leading) edge on this front without lots of discussion and clarification and research. Compare that with last year’s final prompt, which yielded an 80 percent supermajority in support of advancing our social-emotional learning initiatives.
What’s crystal clear to me is the value of making time to engage in this exercise every July. Asking directly about how it’s all going, in the afterglow of another busy year, provides an important vehicle for accountability without feeling needlessly judgmental or adversarial. Not that we should rely on crowdsourcing ideas for change at USN, but it’s essential that we underscore the significance of being in this work together. Special thanks to everyone who made time to participate—may those numbers continue to grow. Getting a response rate around 50 percent of families, as we did this time, is no small thing in the survey field.
In the ideal case, at least to me, any data set should provide both confirmation and discovery. We should not, if we’ve been paying attention, be shocked to hear what people really think, but if it’s all just reiterating what we’ve heard before that’s suboptimal. Best that we assure that what we think has been going well is still on track, while at the same time we learn something meaningful about projects under consideration. Seems like we checked both boxes with this survey. And as always, there’s plenty yet to do and plenty of good reasons to dig in. Thanks for reading—if you’d like to geek out more, we can find time for coffee.
And forward we go.
    • Director Vince Durnan during the Popsicle Party.

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