I’ve worked shoulder-to-shoulder with people who consider “research” to be procrastination – one step on the ladder of productivity from contemplating one’s navel. No time to be tentative, they’d say. Nothing is accomplished until you roll up your sleeves and actually do something.
That’s why I started taking notes when I heard Gerri Allen speak with conviction about the importance of school leaders doing research at one of SCN’s Come Smart, Leave Smarter workshops this summer. Here’s a school communicator who knows that research isn’t “running in place.”
Gerri, for readers who haven’t met her, served in school communications for the Livingston and Washtenaw County Intermediate School Districts in Michigan for 30 years. For the last three years she’s worked as a communications consultant serving the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA), among other clients. She studied journalism at Eastern Michigan University and reported for newspapers in southeast Michigan for five years before accepting a position in school public relations with a K-12 school district. Gerri subsequently earned a master’s degree in public relations and advertising at Michigan State University.
Gerri says school administrators and school communicators (“the most generous group of professionals you’ll find anywhere”) have taught her most of what she knows about the importance of acting on decisions that are based in research. “I’m not the expert,” she insists.
But I didn’t want to talk to a number cruncher. I wanted Gerri, who’s seen the difference taking time for research can make. Gerri says, even if your school system can’t afford to hire a company to do market research, there is research you can do. And you’ll be so glad you did.
Gerri shared so many great tips about research that I’m going to run them on two consecutive Thursdays. Enjoy this week’s installment and be sure catch next’s week’s piece on scientific research, which will run on Thanksgiving.” – KYM
Here’s Part I from Gerri –
Research is the first step in a good communication plan.
As you implement new programs and strategies to reach your district’s goals, you’ll need to develop a communication plan that supports your work.
We’re all pressed for time and our “to do” list is ever growing.
So, in an effort to get more things done, we skip the research and jump right to the implementation phase of our communication project.
But, often we could save ourselves time, effort and money by investing a little time and money in some research first.
Research will help you:
- Define your current reality,
- Identify potential issues,
- Discover people’s perceptions,
- Target your messages, and
- Improve your communication efforts.
Research is like that big arrow on the map that says, “You are here.”
How can you know which way to go, if you don’t know where you are?
And, if you don’t know where you are, you should certainly ask.
Secondary research was done by somebody else, but if you trust the source and it’s available to you, go ahead and add it to the mix of information you will use to chart a course of action.
Good sources of secondary research include:
- United States census data
- Career and technical education school post-graduation surveys
- Chamber of Commerce Education Subcommittee reports
- Market research conducted by hospitals, foundations and entities considering making large investments in your community
Research can start within your own school district. People in different departments often don’t take time to talk to one another. Employees with direct contact with families (teachers, school aides, bus drivers and secretaries) have a pulse on how your community is feeling. Seek and value their input.
Here’s how you gather it:
- Walking around the building and listening to the topics of conversation
- Listening to public comments at board meetings
- Listening for issues at parent/teacher conferences
- Talking with Advisory Committees, Parent/Teacher Associations, Band Boosters, Student Council
- Talking with the Chamber of Commerce’s Education Committee
- Attending legislative forums to learn what elected officials think about the schools
- Using alerts to flag media stories and posts. What is the media saying? What are bloggers saying?
- Using analytics to track web page hits. What are the most popular pages?
Once you have an idea of potential issues, for each one, ask and answer for yourself:
- Why might this be a source of concern?
- Who does this affect? (List those involved in the issue and those affected by it.)
- How does it involve them?
- Where is this an issue (one school, several schools, the entire district)?
- When is this an issue?
As issues emerge, you won’t be caught by surprise and you’ll be better prepared to develop communication strategies to address them.
If want to explore some issues in depth, you can use a more formal form of research, such as focus groups.
Focus groups will require staff time to plan, and a modest expenditure for refreshments, but they provide a valuable opportunity to give information are receive information from your community.
- Select a diverse group of 10 t0 12 individuals. Each participant should represent a different audience within the district, but they should ask answer the same questions. This is not scientific research, meaning that findings can’t be generalized to a larger audience. But if you ask 10 to 20 focus groups of parents, teachers, administrators and community members the same questions, patterns will emerge.
- In one focus group we asked parents about their use of the school district website. It turned out that they hardly used it. They found it hard to navigate and preferred to get all of their information through their child’s school building web page. So, the district is reimagining its website since the parents’ preferred access is through the school building website.
- In another instance, a focus group reinforced an internal decision to decrease staff production time for the local education cable channel, for which there was no viewership data. Instead the district reallocated staff time to produce YouTube videos that can also be aired on the cable channel. The focus groups affirmed the district’s reallocation of staff time from the cable channel to YouTube videos, noting that very few parents watch the cable channel.
Online survey tools
Another method for obtaining data from an identified audience are online surveys conducted via Survey Monkey or K-12 Insights.
Results give you an idea of what people are thinking, but you must keep in mind that people who take the survey are motivated to respond. Unless the response rate is near 100 percent (highly unlikely), you won’t know whether their responses are representative of a larger group. An isolated concern could look as large as a district-wide issue.
The best you will be able to say is, “ Of those who responded, XYZ percentage said… .”
To generalize about the opinions of a larger audience, you’ll need to use scientific research.
AND this concludes Part I. Watch for Part II next week. (Gobble, gobble!)