Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Asking questions of the public schools

It's taken the last several days to find out what my public school district's policy on student surveys is. I was a little taken aback when my daughter came home and mentioned that the students had been given a survey to complete that day in class. The teacher had evidently walked the students through the survey questions, explaining to the fourth-graders what each of the questions meant, so that they would know how to "fill in the bubbles" on the computer survey form with their number 2 pencils to register their answers.

"It asked if I felt okay at school talking to adults, and I put 'no,'" my daughter told me.

"Oh, why not?" I asked.

"Because I'm always shy talking to adults," she admitted.

"What else did the survey ask?" I said.

"Questions about the school and the rest was just personal stuff," she said. "It's too hard to explain."

I couldn't get anything more descriptive out of her. Wondering what the validity of a questionnaire would be with a teacher having to coach the students in interpreting it (and given the level of questionable comprehension shown by my own daughter), I was curious to find out more facts about this survey. Having read this essay not long ago, I was just a tad uneasy that a survey had been administered to my child without my permission or advance notice. This essay, found after a quick Google search of the web, didn't make me feel any better.

I started with an email to the teacher asking about the survey. She told me it was part of the district-wide school improvement survey of teachers, students, staff, and parents that had been going on over the past few years (in fact, I had responded to the parent survey myself). She referred me to the person in charge of administering the survey in the school. This person quickly emailed me back with more information about the survey, and offered to let me see a copy of the blank student survey form. In looking over the form, I saw with relief it was very much like the parent survey: asking about general impressions of whether or not the teachers, staff, and administration seem to be welcoming, fair, supportive, competent, and doing their jobs.

I was also referred to a person in the school district's Office of Accountability for answers to my larger questions: what surveys are administered to the children in our public schools and don't I have the right of advance notice, the chance to preview the forms, and the right to opt my child out of taking the survey if I so choose?

Finding the answers to these questions took some time, as I was referred to yet another administrator (luckily all of these exchanges easily took place in email and to their credit, the teachers and administrators were quickly responsive and tried to answer me at length). According to a webpage hidden deep in the bowels of the school district's jargon-filed website, parental permission IS required in the case of any "external research" conducted among the students. If I have understood the wording correctly, external studies would include any surveys generated by the federal or local government, state surveys that are not mandated, and surveys by the Center for Disease Control and any other outside agencies or individuals. But for "internal" research by the school district itself, and including state-mandated research surveys, there is no such provision for advance parental notice or opting-out.

This doesn't necessarily make me feel completely relieved. Though I was assured that the school district has policies and procedures in place and takes very seriously its responsibility to carefully check and vet whatever survey questions it asks of the children, I am too old to be mollified to that wheeze of a tune: "Trust us, we're the experts and we have children of our own." Though I was told that this recent survey is the only "internal" survey my children will encounter this year, there is no other way to find out what happens from year to year than to go back and rattle the school district's cage each year, and trust I am being told the truth. If I would want to view an upcoming internal survey in advance, it is not clear what my rights (if any) are concerning that.

In my opinion, it is to a school district's advantage to remain as transparent as possible to the parents when it comes to administering any and all student surveys, to avoid giving even the impression of impropriety or highhandness. Granted, the majority of parents will probably never even care, but for those who do, this is an area that can be vulnerable to abuse. A difference in values here between what the school district thinks is an appropriate survey and what an individual parent thinks is an appropriate survey can easily turn into a political and emotional armageddon. I say, give the parents the info they need so they can choose whether to opt their own child out.

If you don't already know yourself, you might want to try to find out what your public school district's policies are concerning student surveys, as an interesting exercise. ("State-by-state limitations on Student Surveys" website here.)

In the meantime I'm putting this on the back burner for now, as I continue to try to get any answer at all to my very general, first-contact questions about what kind of sex education course my son's high school requires that he take. Been working on that one since before Christmas and the silence is deafening. I have emailed a school counselor, telephoned the front office, been referred to three other people who've been contacted via email, and have not yet had an answering peep. Not a good sign.

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