“Everything must be filled out,” yelled my homeroom teacher at Staten Island’s Curtis High School as she passed papers with envelopes down the aisles.
“What’s this?” mumbled some students. Others laughed at the piece of paper, on which we are asked to agree or disagree with statements like, “I feel welcome in my school,” and “I am safe in my classes.”
Some people struggled to answer the questions sincerely. Others would have played garbage basketball with the papers if our teacher hadn’t stopped them.
Though my teacher did not tell my class, the mysterious surveys were part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education reform plan. To collect information from the people most intimate with the ins and outs of New York City schools, the Department of Education gave surveys to 1.8 million teachers, parents and students last May.
“Parents, teachers and students know better than anyone what their school does well and how (it) can improve,” explained DOE spokesman Andrew Jacob in an email.
While that may be the case, some critics think the Department of Education is not asking the right questions. In May, WNYC reported that many parents faulted the survey for ignoring critical issues, such as class size and standardized testing. One parent group, Class Size Matters, in conjunction with the National Center for Schools and Communities at Fordham University, issued its own survey, with questions aimed at determining whether school are overcrowded and have enough resources. The independent survey also asked parents for their opinion of Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.
To find out what students thought of the education department’s effort, the staff of New Youth Connections interviewed close to 25 students from high schools around the city who had taken the survey and found that students felt similarly about it as parents.
While many students appreciated having their opinions included in the city’s education reform plans, only two students interviewed thought the survey would actually be effective. The others said the survey process was flawed, and that, as a result, its findings could not be taken seriously.
When asked to fill out the survey, "most students were hysterical" with laughter, said Keeri Joseph, 16, from Freedom Academy High School. Tristan Reginato, 15, of Beacon High School in Manhattan called the survey “pointless,” and Nydia Palaz, who just graduated from Forest Hills High School, said that students in her school felt the surveys were “not effective."
Many students found the questions, which asked how much they agreed or disagreed with various statements about their school, to be vague and silly. When teachers passed out the forms, many did not explain what the survey would be used for, which only heightened student confusion.
When I took the education department survey, I shared many of the feelings of other students interviewed for this article. As my pen started to fill in the circles of “agree” and “disagree,” I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone was actually going to take the time to make sense of my answers.
FOR STUDENTS, BY STUDENTS
Last year, the Citizens Committee for Children’s Youth Action, which is made up of New York City public and private school students, gave out its own student survey. The young advocates there were pleased with the insights it provided. They discovered, for example, that most of the schools they surveyed had out-of-date library resources.
Unlike the city’s survey, which was administered by teachers, students handed out the Youth Action survey at their schools and explained clearly what it would be used for. And while the Department of Education had students answer questions on an agree/disagree scale that many students found odd, the Youth Action survey allowed room for personal anecdotes. Students are more likely to be candid when they’re speaking with peers and given room to explain themselves, the Grace Chao of Youth Action said. (Results from the Youth Action survey Youth Weigh In are available online.)
THE NEXT STEP
Despite the cynicism on the part of many students, the Department of Education says its surveys are indeed going to be used. The results from students, parents and teachers will account for 10 percent of a school's “grade,” that will also incorporate test scores, attendance, safety and observations by experts who visited the school. The department hopes to have the survey results on the department’s web site by the end of the summer. It also plans to distribute the survey again next spring.
When the city does that, Chao thinks it should adapt some of the methods her group used when conducting their survey. For example, she advises that the department add “youth directed questions” to “get a more comprehensive view from the students’ perspective.” And she suggests the city hold “more youth forums so they can see what is needed most.”
This article by Jill Feigelman, 17, a writer for New Youth Connections, written by and for New York City teens, is adapted from the pages of our partner, Youth Communication.