School District Gathers Feedback

Survey of Teachers and Administrators

In one Wisconsin school district, the communications office is responsible not only for sending out messages to the community, but also for getting feedback form the community on how its teachers and administrators are performing. Now in its third year, this West Bend School District program aims to give teachers and administrators feedback that will help them improve their performance and thereby improve the education provided to students.

 “Communication is not just sending out material,” says Dorreen Dembski, the district’s public information coordinator. “This is a systematic and systemic way of listening, and that to me is equally important as sending out any message? If I never listen, how do I know what people are thinking?” 

The program grew out of a district strategic plan that Dembski was asked to implement.  The result is a plan to “gather  feedback from all stakeholder groups” and use that information to develop “action plans for improvement,” she says.

“We need to measure what’s relevant to our district,” she says. The feedback process was carefully aligned to our strategic plan, to measure whether we walk the talk.

Two Surveys

Two tracks were developed: a Teacher Survey that seeks feedback from parents and peers, and an Administrator Survey that seeks feedback from peers and the staff supervised. 

For each teacher, 25 parent and 10 peer surveys are sent out, and the teacher does a self-survey. For administrators, the number of surveys sent out varies with the job, but it ranges from 40-100 surveys per administrator.  The feedback program is on a three-year cycle, with roughly a third of the teachers and administrators the subject of surveys each year. 

The district, with 12 schools and 6,700 students, has 500 teachers and 26 administrators, and the program costs about $13,000 to $15,000 a year, according to Dembski.

In the program’s first year, 1998-99, the district got responses from 17 percent of parents and 54 percent of peers who were surveyed.  The second year the response rate rose to 24 percent of parents and 64 percent for peers.  This year’s teacher survey, mailed May 7, is already beating last year’s response rate according to Dembski.

For Your Eyes Only

The survey data are for the personal use of the teacher or administrator named.  It is not shared with their supervisor or used in any way for their evaluations.  “You receive it, you see it, your boss doesn’t,” Dembski says. 

The district does get aggregate data, and individual principals get aggregate data if three or more or their teachers are participating.  This allows principals to provide staff development or leadership in a given area, she says. 

“Teachers and administrators have responded cautiously.  We’ve made it very clear this is feedback, it is not evaluative.”  She adds: “I’m really convinced we can’t be successful on a district level if we’re not successful on an individual level.”

While she has not discouraged press coverage of the program, she hasn’t courted it either.  The result has been little media coverage.  “We had concerns about promoting it heavily.  We didn’t want it to appear in any way negative,” she says.

The district sends out a “carefully crafted letter” with the survey and gives Dembski’s phone number as a contact for more information.  She’s had follow-up meetings with parents, and some changes have been made based on their feedback, she says.

“We’ve worked very hard to ensure two things: confidentiality and anonymity.  And nothing bad has happened,” she adds.

Mixed Reviews

The process has brought a mixed response. “There are those who have embraced it, have shared the results openly at their professional growth plan meetings, and are excited about it,” she says. 

There are others, however, who are less enthusiastic.  Most of those would be happier if there were a student survey, particularly at the middle and high school level.  Indeed, she says the next step, will be to incorporate student feedback for the teachers and parent and student feedback for administrators.

“It has not been an easy road. There are some objections,” she says.  In addition to the lack of student input, a “concern for keeping it relevant, keeping it tied to input what we’re doing, not making it more to do.”  “It would be pie in the sky to believe that 100 percent of the people involved in the process relish doing it, “Dembski admits.

The critical piece to this is to make this meaningful in our organization and not separate from what we’re doing. It has a direct relationship to the process already in place . . . to improve our education process and be tied to professional growth of our teachers.”

Will Change Result?

The truth is that teachers and administrators will use the feedback in different ways—or not at all.  “About one in 10 will make some real significant changes based on the feedback.” She says.

She illustrates that point dramatically with her own story.  When staff surveys yielded a middling rating of about 2.3 on the question, “Keeps me informed about decisions made by the Board of Education,” Dembski took that as an indictment of how she was doing her own job.

She immediately initiated something called Board Briefs, a print and electronic newsletter supporting on every school board meeting. “Within the first three to five issues, I had five people call an thank me for it.” Dembski says.

“That’s a dramatic statement about how it impacted my public information process.  It shows the value of it. Had I never asked, I wouldn’t have known.”

Technology is Key

An important part of the program is the technology used to expedite it: an automated toll free telephone response system. 

Using an 800 number eliminated the data entry piece, as the answers are automatically entered during the phone call, Dembski explains.  This allows for a two-week turnaround on results, a time frame unheard of in the research world.  The system is managed by International Learning, an Atlanta-based consulting firm that helped West Bend develop the feedback program.

To ensure confidentiality and to prevent anyone from responding more than once, each survey is assigned an identification number that the respondent punches in before beginning to answer the questions.  Respondents are then led through a script, and they punch in the number corresponding to their answer for each question.

The next step, Dembski hopes, will be to put the system on line.

She knows of no other districts using this feedback model, and indeed, in researching it , the district drew heavily on models from business and industry because they couldn’t find any similar programs in school districts.  Basically, she says, the district developed a hybrid of the 360 Degree Feedback tool popular in business circles today.  In businesses, “360” feedback refers to review from one’s supervisor and staff, as well as a self-review.  “We based ours on the same ideas, to develop feedback from the people who impact our effectiveness.

New Standards

Dembski also is excited about a new development: the state of Wisconsin in February 2000 adopted the Wisconsin Educator Standards, which among other things, requires that beginning in 2004 new teachers must develop professional development plans to be licensed. To get ready for this, Dembski was asked to help develop the self assessment piece, which of course feeds right into what she is doing at West Bend.

“The neat part about it is how it relates to what we do for our job.”  Part of the legislation requires teachers to have a work team—“now they have a formal survey they can give to their peers.  This gives them information they can use for professional growth which they need for their license.” “If all goes well at the teacher level,” she says, “hopefully they will develop it for the administration and pupil services level as well.”

Contact: Dorreen Dembski, (262) 335-5459