Avoiding the Grand Plan Re-do: Part II

Thanks for coming back for Part II of veteran school communicator Gerri Allen’s tips on how to do research — and why it’s so important for school leaders to make decisions after having listened to a cross-section of constituents, about 75 percent of which don’t have school-aged children.

School Communicator Gerri AllenGerri handled school communications for the Washtenaw and Livingston County intermediate school districts for 30 years before beginning her own communications consulting business.

In Part I, Gerri touched on some primary and secondary methods of gathering research, including focus groups and online surveys. In Part II, she dives into scientific research, the kind based on random samples that can be generalized to a wider population. (“I marvel that talking to 384 randomly selected people can tell you what 100,000 people are thinking, but it does – with 95 percent accuracy,” Gerri said.)

Surveys astound me, too. Let’s get to it! – KYM

Here’s Part II from Gerri –

Conducting a random sample survey

Simple random sample surveys are ones in which a portion (or sample) of the population is drawn so that each person has an equal chance of being selected.   Samples chosen in a random fashion can be considered unbiased because no one member in the population has any more chance of being selected than any other member. For this reason, random samples are said to be representative of the population from which they were drawn. These surveys are often referred to as scientific polls—like the ones conducted for political candidates and issues in the recent election.

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 5.41.32 PMIn a scientific poll, the pollster identifies and seeks out the people to be interviewed. In an unscientific poll, the respondents usually “volunteer” their opinions, selecting themselves for the poll.

Results of the well-conducted scientific poll provide a reliable guide to the opinions of many people in addition to those interviewed – even the opinions of all Americans. The results of an unscientific poll tell you nothing beyond simply what those respondents say.

On several different occasions, the two school districts in which I worked conducted scientific opinion polls to discover what community members knew about our programs, how they received information about the district, and what messages resonated with them. We then used the results to more efficiently and cost-effectively distribute our information and to deliver the messages that mattered most to our community members.

You may want survey your community members using a scientific poll so that you have a reliable guide to the opinions of many people. This will tell you what they think, know and perceive about your schools, and how they prefer to get their information. You could choose to make this a recurring goal and use the same questionnaire every five years to compare responses and note the improvements in your communication efforts.

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 5.45.58 PMDon’t ask if you’re not going to do anything with the research. There’s nothing worse than asking someone for their input and then not considering it.

Of all the forms of primary research I’ve described, the scientific poll is the most expensive. It’s going to cost about $20,000. But, if you conduct one every 5 years, the investment per year diminishes. It may have an initial cost, but it in the end, it will pay big dividends in targeted, effective communication and support for your students.

If you are going to conduct a poll, follow these 10 basic steps.

  1. Determine what you want to know.
  2. From which audiences?
  3. Why?
  4. Select the sample/audiences.
  5. Develop the survey plan/type of instrument.
  6. Prepare the questions.
  7. Pre-test the questionnaire.
  8. Gather the data.
  9. Analyze and interpret the data.
  10. Apply what you’ve learned.

Secondary research

It’s advantageous to seek out secondary research because it already exists and will, therefore, save you time and money.

As you remember from Part I, secondary research was gathered by someone other than yourself. You probably found it in an online search you did from your desk.

Check databases for published literature on studies that have already been done your topic. Check with the Chamber of Commerce, Community Foundation, United Way, your school buildings, parent/teacher associations, nearby colleges and universities. All these organizations conduct research for their own organizations on your community. You can usually trust that this information was collected according to professional standards.

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 5.49.47 PMWhat solutions have other school districts used for situations like you’re experiencing? Reach out through your professional associations, such as the Michigan School Public Relations Association (MSPRA) listserv, LinkedIn conversations, or personal contacts (like a phone call to a colleague in another district). People are usually happy to share what they know.

Are there other surveys that you could mine for data, like the Graduate Follow-Up Survey of Career and Technical Education students?

Once you’ve collected your data, analyze it. Break it down. Only then can you confidently determine whether you have an issue, or just the perception of one.

In either case, a communication campaign may be in order.

In summary

  • Add some research strategies into your communication efforts.
  • Start small so that you can be successful.
  • Use your research findings to:
    • define your current reality, (“X” You are here.)
    • identify potential issues,
    • discover people’s perceptions,
    • target your messages, and
    • improve your communication efforts.

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