Today, our schools face the defining challenge of a generation, perhaps their entire existence.
Until five years ago, few dared utter the words “market share” in the context of public schools. The term simply did not exist. Even now, there are those in schools who would swear it doesn’t.
But, as states and the federal government continue to support and fund school choice, education leaders face an inescapable reality: Like it or not, competition has come to America’s public schools.
Public school advocates say schools should focus on serving students, not looking over their shoulders at the competition. Choice advocates say alternative schools wouldn’t exist if public schools were doing a better job.
Here’s the thing: Choice is not about pitting public schools against alternative schools. It’s about helping students and families discover the education that’s right for them. For millions of Americans, public schools are that choice–or, could be.
Educators in all schools, public and otherwise, must embrace a choice mindset–one that says we will earn the trust of every student and parent who enters our doors and we will figure out a way to keep them and we will keep them. In systems where students and families chose out, educators should return to the ones who they’ve lost and ask what they could have done differently.
It’s time to stop running scared. Public school leaders, this is a call to arms.
A total school experience
Whenever we talk about improving schools, instinctively we look to classrooms. Every student deserves a quality education and every school should offer one. But if you think education alone is the cure, you’re setting yourself up for certain disappointment.
The school experience extends beyond the four walls of the classroom. Every interaction you have with parents and students and teachers is an opportunity to win them over, to show them why your school system is the right choice. You need to build your brand. I’m not talking about media buys and billboards. That stuff is expensive and it’s beneath you. At its core, marketing is about telling the story of your school or district’s success. That story starts where it should, with the people you serve each and every day.
The best decision you can make is to systematically engage your stakeholders–be it parents, teachers, students, or staff–in honest conversations about what’s working and not working in your schools. These conversations rest on two fundamental commitments:
- Soft-touch, velvet-glove customer service
- Deep listening to manage critical issues
#1 Soft-touch, velvet-glove customer service
Plenty of school leaders bristle at the notion of parents or students or teachers as customers. Schools teach; they don’t sell. Truth is, schools perform customer service every day. Students come to class, parents call with questions, teachers and community members email. Sometimes they vent on social media. You need a way to bring all of this feedback together, to effectively measure the critical nature of each issue, and to respond with courtesy, care and timeliness.
We have data from more than 200 school systems. If a parent receives a response from their child’s school in 24 hours or less, that parent, on average, will score that interaction an eight or nine out of 10. If the same response is issued 48 hours later, the average score drops to two or three out of 10. Research shows that parents don’t have to agree with your decision. But they do need that validation of being heard. This is the difference between broadcasting information and fostering meaningful engagement with your school community.
#2 Deep listening to manage critical issues
Inviting feedback is important, but there will be times when you need to go deeper than that. Understand what teachers and parents and students expect of you annually. Dedicate time each year to ask your community a series of well-thought-out questions. Give people plenty of ways to respond to those questions, in different languages where needed. Once you’ve compiled the data and you’re ready to act, explain your choices clearly and make sure parents and teachers and others know how their feedback contributed to your decisions.
Make an effort to connect with those who have left your schools. Consider an exit or alumni survey to get a sense for how well your schools prepare students for their future, or why families chose out in favor of other options. What you learn from these conversations will surprise you.
The debate over school choice rages on. But, through a combination of academics and a commitment to service, the great hope here is that we can argue less about what types of schools are best, and focus more on creating personal experiences that yield winning outcomes for students and families, regardless of choice.
Struggling with these challenges in your schools? Email Suhail at firstname.lastname@example.org.