Three reasons your school parents aren't giving feedback – and what to do about it

If you're an administrator at a Christian school, you have paying customers.

They're called parents.

And just like customers in any industry, they're full of opinions, suggestions and ideas. When those aren’t heard? Eventually, you might see bitterness, frustration and – worst of all – gossip.

As we've built out the ParentPulse platform, we've had dozens of conversations with Christian school administrators, and the consensus has been nearly unanimous: feedback from parents is critical. When consistently collected, properly analyzed and intentionally leveraged, feedback can inform strategy for school leaders and give parents (the "customers") a sense of ownership and investment.

But what happens when the feedback disappears? How do you turn the spigot back on?

Feedback fatigue (or, more specifically, survey fatigue) is a real thing. It seems every interaction with every company is followed by an e-mail, text or social media request for feedback.

The good news is that your school has a leg up on the feedback clutter. You're not just a lube and filter shop looking for feedback on an oil change. Your parents have invested precious time, money and energy in partnering with you to educate their children.

But, sometimes your feedback campaigns still might not produce much... ahem... feedback.

Let's explore some possible reasons.

Problem No. 1: Parents don't see any action from prior feedback.

Maybe you've been there. You've spent a lot of time (and maybe even a lot of money with a third-party vendor) to develop a long, detailed survey to better understand your parents' perspectives on everything from quality of academics, to extracurricular offerings, to student faith development. You've scoured the results, probably even had a few "aha" moments and discoveries.

But it likely stopped there.

For whatever reason – perhaps a lack of time, new priorities, or even disagreement with the findings – nothing really came of the survey results. The exercise was informational, but not actionable.

Here's the problem: if people voice their opinion and nothing happens, they're going to eventually hit the mute button.

Angele Sinickas, an international communication consultant, notes that low survey response rates are often linked to poor follow-up communication. "When a group never hears the findings of past surveys, or any resulting changes, they begin to think their opinions don't matter. If their past opinions were valued so lightly, they feel less urgency to share further opinions."

Along those same lines, McKinsey & Company discovered the leading cause of survey fatigue was the perception that the organization would not act on the results.

On a personal level, I've worked with several software vendors over the years who funneled me to an on-line "idea page" whenever I brought forward a suggestion for their software. They consistently promised that their software developers closely monitored the web page and earmarked the best ideas for implementation. Guess what? I've never seen one of my ideas implemented (or even acknowledged). Admittedly, it's quite possible my ideas just stink. But, I've given up on those forums because it seems nothing ever comes of it... nor do I even get acknowledgement that my ideas have even been seen or heard! It's kind of like the old "tree falls in a forest" question – if feedback is offered and no one hears it, does the feedback even matter?

If your parents invest valuable time to share their thoughts – but never see any results (or even get confirmation that their feedback has been heard), they're likely to see your feedback collection efforts as a waste of their time.

We've developed a four-step cyclical process to help schools better acknowledge their parents' observations and create an effective feedback loop:

  1. Tell them what you've heard.

  2. Tell them what you're doing.

  3. Tell them when you've done it.

  4. Get more feedback on what you've done.

1. Tell them what you've heard.

After you've collected feedback – through surveys, focus groups or 1-on-1 interviews – share the data with your stakeholders! One option? Send a PDF that recaps the findings. You can always remove any information that's confidential. Your instinct might be to only share the positive feedback, but you'll gain HUGE transparency points with your families if you include results that highlight potential areas of concern. Check out one Christian school's efforts to share survey results and even acknowledge areas that needed work.

Sharing the results via e-mail can seem a bit impersonal or detached, which is why we suggest a couple of other options as well. Have your head administrator use a video tool such as Vidyard or BombBomb to record a short greeting and highlight some of the findings. In fact, if you had individual(s) make especially salient suggestions, you can send a custom video message directly to them. (Talk about impact!)

Or, if you really want to get buy-in, host a town hall that's focused solely on explaining the feedback, along with proposed action steps (more on that shortly). Of course, a town hall is usually a two-way street, so you'll need to be prepared to answer questions that might come up.

2. Tell them what you're doing.

Here's the thing about feedback. You don't need to (and definitely shouldn't!) act on every piece of feedback you receive, but you'll almost certainly uncover a handful of key themes and findings.

As you pore over the feedback, work with your leaders to prioritize 1-2 action items you can implement. These don't have to be earth-shattering items. While a good survey WILL yield feedback that shapes longer-term strategic plans, look for some low-hanging fruit as well. Maybe it's opening up the pick-up car line five minutes earlier... or sending a Monday e-mail with a quick reminder of the athletic events scheduled for the week.

Whatever you identify, make sure to tell your parents what you're doing! You can use the same method as above – e-mail recap, video, town hall, etc. You'll gain massive buy-in for future feedback campaigns if parents see direct action connected to their thoughts, concerns and ideas.

3. Tell them when you've done it.

If your action items are quick and simple, you might have already implemented the changes by the time you tell them what you're doing. But, if not, follow through and let your parents know when the changes are in place! Again, this can be through a simple e-mail or video. Stakeholders feel a high sense of trust when they see follow-through and action from their leaders.

4. Get more feedback on what you've done.

Sometimes an idea sounds better in theory than it becomes in practice. When you implement feedback-fueled changes, be on the lookout for positive or negative impact. Include questions in follow-up surveys about the changes to make sure they were well-received and are achieving the intended outcomes.

Problem No. 2: You haven't made it easy to provide feedback

You might have the best intentions when it comes to listening to your parents, but if you haven't created an easy, seamless and consistent method (and communicated that method to parents – again and again), your parents are likely going to turn off the feedback faucet.

Maybe you claim to have an "open door" policy, but what happens when you show up to your office after an off-campus meeting on Tuesday morning, only to find 6 people lined up and waiting to meet with you?

Why not treat parent-administrator conferences the same way your teachers treat their parent-teacher conferences? Carve out a couple hours each week, and allow parents to schedule 15-minute sessions with you on-line (Calendly is a great option). Add a link to that scheduling tool in your e-mail signature – or in newsletters or other materials that are distributed to parents – so they have easy access.

Be playful. Give the meetings a cool name (maybe "Feedback Fridays," though perhaps hold off on that name if you're scheduling meetings on Tuesdays). And hold that time sacred – it's your chance to hear directly from your "customers" and what could be more important than that?

Maybe you're scratching your head because you send out parent surveys, but just don't get many responses (the average response rate for e-mailed surveys is 30 percent, but Christian schools should aim for response rates higher than that since their respondents generally view themselves as part of a tight-knit community.)

Survey design and frequency is a critical component. One administrator even acknowledged that his parents sigh, "Oh boy, here it is again," whenever they receive an annual survey. The length and complexity can be overwhelming. If your questions require too much mental effort (for instance, asking respondents to rank 6 or 7 different components), or if the survey takes longer than 5 minutes, your response rates are going to drastically decline (according to one study, 45 percent of respondents aren't willing to take more than five minutes to complete a survey.) Likewise, if you survey either too frequently (more than once per quarter) or infrequently (only once per year), your parents are less likely to participate.

The sweet spot? A relatively short, quarterly survey (preferably fewer than 20 questions) with simple Likert scale rating questions or multiple choice questions. It's OK to have one or two open-ended questions, but too many comment fields can lead to survey fatigue – and results from those types of questions can be biased. Studies show that survey respondents who answer open-ended questions are more likely to be least satisfied. (In other words, your happy campers might not bother to leave any comments, which might slant your analysis of the results).

At ParentPulse, every parent receives a short quarterly survey – some key questions carry over from quarter to quarter to allow schools to track responses longitudinally over time, while a few change each quarter to provide timely, relevant feedback. And, we also make it easy for parents by both e-mailing AND texting links to the survey (studies show that users are more likely to respond sooner when they're sent both a text AND e-mail invitation).

By the way, an obvious way to address this problem? Just ask for feedback! Sometimes that's all it takes for parents to open up. As you interact with parents on a daily basis, try mixing in one of these questions to gather some qualitative feedback:

•What's one thing we've done well in the past 90 days?

•What's one thing we haven't done well in the past 90 days?

•What excites your student most about coming to our school?

•What's one word you'd use to describe our school?

Problem No. 3: Your parents are fearful of retaliation

Most administrators are quick to dismiss the possibility of this problem in their school, and understandably so. It's not fun to think that your school might have a culture of fear. But in some cases, parents are legitimately less likely to provide feedback because they think their kids might "suffer" for it.

How do you know if that might be happening at your school? Check for these three things:

  1. Do you ask parents for feedback, but just don't hear much (or any)?

  2. Do your parents gossip and talk with each other about their concerns and frustrations, while rarely bringing those same concerns forward to administrators?

  3. Do you have families that leave the school with little or no advance notice – and no explicit reason (at least one that they'll share)?

If you're seeing evidence of these things, it might be time to examine the transparency culture at your school. While culture change is a gradual transformation that goes beyond the scope of this blog post, there are a handful of things you can do in the short-term to encourage more parent feedback – even in a state where some fear might be present.

Identify someone on your team – an administrator who's NOT the lead admin, or even a teacher – as a "Feedback Czar." This individual needs to have specific character traits – he or she should be organized, communicate well, be trusted with confidential information, and have a history of following through.

Let your parents know you've created this role and encourage them to bring any type of feedback – good, bad or otherwise – to the individual. The Feedback Czar should assimilate the feedback, keep it anonymous when necessary and make sure it's properly shared and discussed with school leaders. If parents have reservations with providing feedback to the head administrator, creating a "go-between" role can help facilitate a healthier feedback loop.

Additionally, when you create surveys, make sure you don't require individuals to enter their names. You can (and should) make it optional – just be sure that if people DO provide their names, you follow through on any specific concerns they might have voiced (see Problem No. 1.). (With ParentPulse, you can even send a one-way follow-up to anonymous respondents.) Some leaders frown on the concept of anonymous feedback, but if it leads to more consistent and honest responses, it's worth it.

Also consider using a third-party survey provider instead of sending your own surveys though Google forms or another "do-it-yourself" survey platform. Partnering with a vendor that administers surveys on your behalf can lend legitimacy to the process and lead to greater trust with your respondents. The feedback well may have run dry – but there's no reason new water can't seep through. By communicating more intentionally and prioritizing action, making it easier to provide feedback, and creating a more transparent and open environment, you'll be well on your way to cultivating a culture of feedback.