Overcoming Survey Fatigue to Get at the Good Data Your School Needs to Succeed

At Measuring Success, we’ve collected data from more than 1,500 independent schools since 2003. We use general questions that are common among cohorts — so that they can compare themselves to one another — but we also offer schools the ability to customize their surveys.
Recently, a school admissions officer told us that parents are surveyed out – which has become a common refrain among school leadership.

Measuring Success’ senior analyst Sophy Yang said that often when schools first conduct a survey, say a parent survey, they might get a high rate of compliance.

“We may see 80 to 90 percent the first time the school takes a survey,” Yang said. “They’re excited about being asked for their feedback on how the school is doing.”

But after the first year, the response rate has a tendency to to drop off, settling in at around 65 to 70 percent, in subsequent years.

Often, those most likely to respond year after year are those who are on either end of a spectrum — they might be thrilled that their child’s academic needs are finally being met, or they are having issues and want an outlet to vent. Getting a good response rate is key to taking the temperature of the overall population of the community.

One of our parent survey clients, Yeshivat He’Atid school in Teaneck, NJ, is a relatively new school. They are adding grades to their school each year, slowly building a school community from scratch. It is important to their administration and board that the school measure their success among parents and school community to gauge how they are doing before they grow by adding on another grade.

Their head of school, Rav Tomer Ronen, said that he really went out of his way to pester parents to take the parent survey. The effort was worth it. His response rate was more than 90 percent. It is clear that Rav Ronen knows the value of seeing the data.

The truth is, all administrators know that they can’t sustain or grow their schools if they have unhappy parents, students, or alumni. If they see attrition in their student body — if parents begin to pull their children out — they need to know why and immediately take corrective action.
But, how can schools address the fatigue issue among parents and get them to give good responses to the surveys they send out?

One way is to limit the number of surveys. For our comprehensive parent survey, we recommend that the survey be conducted every other year — which takes the temperature and gives a good historical trend-line of what is happening — without overwhelming parents. This allows space for a shorter, more targeted survey in the “off-year” of the full parent survey.

On that note, it is important for administration and faculty to coordinate regarding the “work” they’re giving parents. If a teacher surveys parents once, the head of school sends something out the following month, and the development director sends one the month after that, survey fatigue will surely set in. In our consultations with schools, we ask them to align their surveys and pitch one that seeks to address a variety of issue areas. Adding five questions to the end of an existing survey is a lot less taxing than having yet another survey pushed in front of them when they just wrapped one up.

Another key is to make sure that parents get feedback on surveys when they have participated. For example, when they take the time to answer questions about the school, the school should return the favor with transparency — even when the news isn’t always great. Parents want to know that they have been heard. Shielding them from the bad news sends the message that you are unwilling to address trouble spots. Perhaps most importantly, leadership should explain how it intends to take action on the survey results — and then over time continue to explicitly make connections to actions taken with the original feedback.

Our friend the admissions counselor said that the information gleaned from school surveys is invaluable. Sometimes they see a trend that is troubling and can be addressed. If parents with children in the lower grades feel communication from teachers is not up to par, then perhaps they can be exposed to additional training.

But if year-over-year the crabbiness seems to follow a cohort of students, maybe there is simply a more pessimistic energy that follows that group of parents from one grade to the next.

If you drop a survey because parents have complained that they are tired of taking them, that is information you simply can’t know.

So the issue may not be so much survey fatigue, but an overall look at how the surveys are implemented at your school, how you use the data, and how parents are treated in the feedback loop.

Measuring Success is happy to help you address your school survey needs. Our suite of services include Parent Surveys, Alumni Surveys and Student Surveys. For more information, email info@deva.measuring-success.com.