Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 13, 2014

In survey, students, parents speak out about school experiences

Questions probe satisfaction levels on homework, grading, counseling and more

by Chris Kenrick

Perceptions of fair grading and teacher quality were up among Palo Alto students and parents this year, but there's plenty of room for improvement, according to results of a survey released last week.

Higher numbers than last year also reported satisfaction with the school district's response to incidents of bullying and harassment, although more than a quarter said they were dissatisfied or could not answer the question.

Nearly 4,400 students, parents, teachers, administrators and staff members — 88 percent of them students or parents — took the Palo Alto school district's online Strategic Plan Survey, administered in March.

District statistician Diana Wilmot is still analyzing the results — including more than 1,000 open-ended comments — but presented some of them to the Board of Education June 3. Wilmot said she would post more results on the district's website when they become available.

"I'm working with (consultant) Hanover Research to come up with a more visual, interactive dashboard ... to be able to say, 'Here's the goal; here's where we're at,'" Wilmot said.

On the fairness of grading, 70 percent of students and 76 percent of parents agreed or strongly agreed that "grading is fair across teachers and courses" — up 18 percentage points in both groups over last year.

Lower numbers — 52 percent of students and 49 percent of parents — agreed that "teacher quality and difficulty is consistent across schools and courses," but those figures were up from last year, when only 33 percent of students and 38 percent of parents agreed with that statement.

The results on grading fairness and teacher consistency "are the largest jumps across stakeholder groups, but they are still less than the average satisfaction levels on other questions so there's still a lot of room for growth in those areas," Wilmot said.

Based on her early look at open-ended comments, Wilmot said, people "long for" greater consistency in grading and teacher quality. "It's good to celebrate the quantitative data but also acknowledge the anecdotes on areas for improvement," she said.

On bullying, 72 percent of both students and parents said they were somewhat or very satisfied with "PAUSD's response to student conflicts/bullying harassment." Last year, only 63 percent of parents and 70 percent of students agreed with that statement.

On counseling, 69 percent of students said they were satisfied with non-academic counseling and 70 percent expressed satisfaction with academic and college counseling — essentially flat from last year.

Wilmot did not offer breakdowns on counseling satisfaction levels between Palo Alto High School and Gunn High School, whose counseling program has been the target of consistent complaints by some parents. She said she's still preparing individual reports on each school and will post them online.

On homework, 70 percent of students and 78 percent of parents agreed with the statement that "the amount of homework assigned to students is reasonable this year" — up 4 percentage points from last year in both groups.

Seventy-three percent of students and 80 percent of parents agreed that "student's homework assignments are useful and appropriate this year" — again up slightly in both groups from last year.

Seventy-eight percent of students reported feeling "connected and engaged at school," compared to 69 percent last year who said they felt "excited about coming to school to learn." Ninety percent agreed that "there are high expectations for all students" — up 13 percentage points from last year.

Perceptions on the adequacy of support for underperforming students substantially improved over last year, but still just 66 percent of parents and 68 percent of students agreed with the statement "Underperforming students are well-supported to improve academically." Last year, only 57 percent of parents and 56 percent of students agreed.

Satisfaction levels remained flat, at about 80 percent, on "the social and emotional experience students have at PAUSD."

The district got relatively high marks on use of collaboration and technology in the classroom, with 84 percent or more agreeing that those efforts have been somewhat effective or very effective. More than 90 percent agreed that "the technological tools provided by the school help students learn and communicate with peers and teachers."

Among the 81 teachers who responded to the survey, "a significant number" reported "feeling overwhelmed in their responsibilities," Wilmot said. "Elementary teachers, in particular, reported difficulties in lesson planning, since these teachers must differentiate instruction for three different types of learners for each lesson.

"In addition, many expressed concerns that the school's decisions and overall direction are dominated by a vocal minority of parents.

"Communication with teachers could also be improved. Respondents reported a number of issues associated with communication, including a lack of transparency and the absence of clear and consistent policies from the district," Wilmot said.

Teachers indicated they'd like more time and opportunities to collaborate with colleagues on curricular matters, with only 55 percent expressing satisfaction with the current amount of time available.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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