YouthTruth student opinion data driving change

YouthTruth student opinion data driving change

(Calif.) Discipline policies, respect for adults on campus and career pathway guidance are among the issues most often ranked as “unfavorable” by the nation’s K-12 students – nearly a quarter-million of whom attend schools that use a sophisticated, real-time survey to analyze their input and improve learning conditions.

The turn-around in student engagement and overall school climate has been so successful on some campuses that the national non-profit group that created it, YouthTruth, is considering a similar tool designed to report parent feedback as well.

“Right off the bat, it was like bringing me water in the desert,” Aaron Brengard, principal of San Jose’s Katherine Smith Elementary School, said of the first-year data he received in 2013.

Tapped in 2012 to lead a turnaround of the failing 652-student school, Brengard and an almost completely new staff launched a new project-based learning environment and set about changing from the top down the culture of the school, which he said was “in a rut” because teaching had become so hyper-focused on standardized testing outcomes.

When he and everyone connected to the school began seeing the positive benefits of their work, they had no way to prove that what they were seeing and saying was happening actually was. The YouthTruth survey, he said, provided the validated data that allowed him to verify that his students were connecting with what they were being taught and understood the implication the lessons could have on their lives.

“I was in a void of having data to prove what we were seeing on campus,” said Brengard. “That being that our kids were incredibly engaged; that they were displaying all kinds of leadership potential; that they were developing all these other skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and creativity as a result of us making learning really engaging and relevant to their lives.”

Responding to research from Stanford University’s John W. Gardner Center linking student opinions and perceptions to their own academic outcomes, the Center for Effective Philanthropy – funded by a host of donors, including the Gates, Hewlett and Wallace foundations – created YouthTruth “to better understand from students what was and was not working in their high schools in order to give school and district leaders, as well as education funders, better information to inform improvement efforts.”

Since being piloted in 20 schools in 2009, the YouthTruth survey has now been taken by more than 275,000 students in 300 schools across the nation with an average student response rate of 75 percent, according to Jen Vorse Wilka, the non-profit’s director of partnerships.

Utilizing a sophisticated technology system to translate student perspectives into useful data, YouthTruth reports back to the school results of its survey within a week. Administrators can compare their students’ responses to results from the prior year or to those of students at other similar schools – context which gives meaning to overall ratings and can reveal areas needing improvement.

“We’ve all heard far too many stories about survey data or any kind of data that is collected and then sits there for months and months,” said Wilka. “One of the things that was important to us at YouthTruth was to make that feedback loop rapid. We return survey results within seven days so that when administrators and educators are looking at the data, it’s live – this is what kids said last week.”

Separate surveys are designed for different grade levels – elementary, middle and high school – and include two different components – Feedback for Teachers and Overall School Experience – that can be given separately or together.

There is also a list of optional topics that schools can use to customize their survey, including questions about STEM, Student Voice and Leadership, School Safety, General Health, Emotional and Mental Health, Drugs and Alcohol, Nutrition and Exercise, and Student Motivation (including Grit Scale).

In general, students are asked to respond to each item on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is the most negative and 5 is the most positive response. They are asked questions on a variety of topics, such as these in the Feedback for Teachers survey:

  • Student Engagement – How often do you try to do your best in this class? How high are your teacher's expectations for you?
  • Academic Rigor & Expectations – How well do your teacher's assignments help you better understand the subject? How hard does your classwork make you think?
  • Relevance – How much effort does your teacher make to understand your life outside of school? How much do you think your teacher cares about you? How useful is what you learn in this class for your life outside of school?
  • Instructional Methods – How often does your teacher ask students to explain more about answers they give? How often does your teacher want you to explain your answers – why you think what you think?

Topics in the Overall School Experience section of the survey address Student Engagement, Academic Rigor, Relationships with Peers and Teachers, School Culture, and College and Career Readiness.

In School Culture, for example, students are asked to rate using the 1 to 5 scale whether they agree or disagree that:

  • Discipline in this school is fair
  • Most students in this school treat adults with respect
  • Most adults in this school treat students with respect
  • Most students in this school want to do well in class

“The perceived fairness of discipline varies widely across schools; but overall, this is one of the lowest rated areas in our data set,” Wilka shared. “The data on mutual respect is also telling. For instance, students respond less favorably that ‘most students in this school treat adults with respect’ than they do to ‘most adults in this school treat students with respect.’

“Similarly, students respond less favorably to ‘my school has helped me understand the steps I need to take in order to have the career I want’ than to ‘my school has helped me understand the steps I need to take in order to apply to college,’” she noted. “Essentially, students understandably have a better understanding of the steps they need to take to apply for college than to have the career they want.”

The online survey takes about 20 minutes to complete and can be accessed on a variety of digital devices, including smart phones, Wilka said. Schools do pay to use the survey and have the data analyzed but support from philanthropic foundations helps keep those costs low, she said.

Feedback from administrators shows that 85 to 90 percent of them have used survey results to make specific policy or program changes in their schools or districts, the director said, and perhaps more importantly, students report that they are thrilled to be able to review the findings to which they have contributed.

“We’re really focused on hearing that student perspective, in part because that’s where the research is – linking student opinions to academic outcomes,” Wilka said, “and, secondly, because the student voice and student perspective is most often the one lacking in school policies and programmatic decisions.”