Survey probes school satisfaction levels in Palo Alto

Students, parents, staff on homework, grading, counseling and more

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.

View the survey results, as presented at the school board's June 3 meeting, here.

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Like this comment
Posted by Old Timer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 15, 2014 at 12:14 pm

To Chris Kenrick - Thank you for this article - as many of us in the community without children in the schools are genuinely interested and supportive of schools, students and parents. However, we would have no way of knowing about these important results if it weren't FIRST for the District surveying (thank you, PAUSD for conducting and analyzing the survey and for sharing results), second, for the participation of the school communities, and third, for this article. Thank you all very much.

Evaluation is so important to quality improvement. And there appears to be some good progress in some key areas. It's terrific that so many students participated this year.

One question I was not able to answer by reading the article or District presentation - was this a survey of all grade levels (elementary, middle and high)? Or just high school? If it included all levels, the results would be even more meaningful if reported by the level of schooling each respondent represents (students, parents, teachers).

Chris K - Might you be able to answer this question? Thanks again for sharing this important work with the community.

Like this comment
Posted by Chris Kenrick
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 15, 2014 at 12:51 pm

Old Timer -- Good question, and Diana Wilmot just supplied the answer: all the student respondents were at the high school level.

Like this comment
Posted by brilliant!
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 16, 2014 at 2:04 am

"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."

Oh, dear. After the Weekly's tried repeatedly to trash PAUSD without any data, what happens when the data doesn't back them up? Claim the kids couldn't answer the question! Oh, Weekly, what were the positive results?

Like this comment
Posted by other survey stuff
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 16, 2014 at 5:49 am

Other good stuff buried in this survey relevant to popular Town Square topics:

Bullying: slightly over 3% said that their child had been bullied, few mentioned bullying in their written responses.

Homework: comments varied greatly by school site with many feeling that their children were overwhelmed by homework while others were concerned by a lack of homework.

District and Board Transparency: 83% are satisfied with district and school board communications.

Teaching: 81% agree that teachers use a variety of strategies to actively engage students, emphasize higher order thinking skills, and help students succeed at high levels (don't just teach to the test)

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 16, 2014 at 7:28 am

This survey tells us more about the divergence opinions of what is acceptable rather than anything about how PAUSD is doing.

As an example, some parents want their students to have lots of homework and others want less homework tells me that there is no way of using this survey to quantify the amount of homework assigned. Even back in our elementary days there were parents who were asking teachers to assign more homework so that their children could get ahead with more advanced work.

Some parents accept all sorts of amounts of homework as it tells them their kids are working hard to get into good colleges. They feel that if their kids are up late night after night working it gives them an edge over those who are fast asleep. Whether it is bragging rights or something else, we will never get all the parents agreeing on what is an acceptable amount of homework.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 16, 2014 at 10:42 am

Question for the Weekly: In the "Satisfaction with the districts response to bullying" question you said more than a quarter were dissatisfied aor could not answer. Is this 28%? Of those, how many were dissatisfied and how many could not answer? Thanks very much.

Like this comment
Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Jun 16, 2014 at 11:29 am

I am sorry, I did not understand. Is it possible to list, simply, for me:

% of parents taking the survey (of PAUSD parents. I understand that many have more than one child in the district)?
% students (of high school students)?
% teachers (of PAUSD teachers)?

And, was there any way to make sure that a teacher filling out the survey really teaches in PAUSD, that a parent is really a parent? Any way to know that no one took the survey more than once? etc.

Like this comment
Posted by PublicData
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 16, 2014 at 5:27 pm

It would be useful for the school to make the raw survey results public, or for the Weekly to submit FOIA request to get the data in the hands of the public. I find the summaries provided by the district to be incomplete, or tend to overlook issues that show up at a particular school.

For example, much of the data shows about 20% - 30% discontent. Is this at one school? or one grade level?

Also, the comments can be quite revealing, and can be misinterpreted by district staff.

Please provide the public with the data.

Like this comment
Posted by PAUSD past
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Jun 17, 2014 at 8:24 am

PAUSD employs a district statistician? Just confirms that teaching and learning have taken a back seat to testing.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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