Learning from our school’s families

schools families

“In God we trust. All other bring data.”
-W. Edward Demming


Right now, our school is planning to open a Middle School in two years. We’re spending a lot of time figuring out the details — everything from the reading curriculum to the tile on the floors — on a limited budget. Unfortunately, everything seemed to matter.


In the midst of the planning process, we pushed pause. We realized we had nothing besides our guts to guide decisions. Our guts are great at digestion but bad at decisions. So, we decided to get some data. We created a survey and asked our families to rank the 10 most important things they wanted in a Middle School. The results – in order – are below.


1. Safety and Culture (Is the school a safe, joyful place?)
2. High Expectations and Teacher Quality (Does the school expect the best from students and staff? Does the school recruit, hire, and retain diverse, excellent educators?)
3. Results (Does the school have a track record of results: high school placements, test scores, etc.)
4. Specials (Are there meaningful specials courses: music, foreign language, technology?)
5. Location and Transportation (Is the school easy for me to reach? If applicable, is a bus stop easy to reach?)
6. Racial and Economic Diversity (Does the school’s population represent our city and feel inclusive?
7. Continuity (Does middle school build upon the elementary school’s foundation?)
8. Community (Is the school a small, familiar place?)
9. Sports (Does the school have lots of sports teams?)
10. Facility (Is the school on a new or state of the art campus?)


At a time when our local district is trying to address Middle School attrition and considering big changes like moving 5th grade to elementary school, this data seem especially relevant. Here are three things we noticed.


Locus of Control – The top three items require nearly zero major financial investments and lie almost completely within our school’s locus of control. Improvements to school culture and high expectation are the results of clear vision and hard work not massing spending increases. On the one hand, this is terrifying. If families leave the school, it’s because of our actions — or the lack thereof. On the other hand, it’s empowering. We don’t need lots of money, geographic priority zones or a marketing plan to build safe schools and hold high expectations. Instead, we need to be in classrooms coaching teachers, supporting scholars, and sparking joy. It turns out schools are a little like Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz. We were wearing the ruby red slippers all along.


Little actions can send big messages – In their book Nudge, authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein talk about little actions that have big outcomes. “To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid,” they write. “Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.” We’ve realized the importance of small nudges for school quality. For example, we put tape down our hallways to help students walk in safe, quick lines. It sends a clear signal to families that the school is an orderly place, and they don’t have to worry about children running through hallways, bumping, pushing, and yelling. At the same time, every classroom has a class mascot and cheer, visible from its front door. It sends a clear, but different signal. This is a warm, joyful place.


Schools are communities, not buildings – Did you notice what finished dead last? Facilities. Yet, by 2020, our school district has proposed to spend 1 billion dollars on building renovations and additions. There is absolutely a standard for facility that every school should meet, but I suspect that we worry about buildings too much. Therefore, we’ve decided to invest in people. As a charter school, our facility and capital costs come from our operating budget. We’d rather invest in the teacher that makes metaphorical lightbulbs go off than spend money on fancy lights that will burn out in a few years.


In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman writes “We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.” In other words, we don’t know most things, including what we don’t know. School Boards, Superintendents, Principals, and teachers all engage in school and classroom design. Whether they realize it or not, their autonomy is tremendous. If you asked them what matters most to their stakeholders — students, families, staff — how many have a quick list? How many actually have the data that say their list is correct? How many realize what is in their control and what is not?


For us, data does not turn children into numbers. Data shows what’s obvious and exposes blindspots. With a simple survey, we got great data. We stopped listening to our guts and started listening to our families.


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