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Engagement – lesson of the century

February 27, 2013

What follows is the text of a presentation I made last October to a group of Heads at a large-schools conference in Virginia Beach, co-presenting with Ham Clark, Head of School at Episcopal Academy.

Bill was the Director of Development at a school I first worked with back in 1999.
I was delivering results for a young alumni survey to the senior admin team, maybe 15 people around the table.
Bill's eyes were closed, and he was leaning with his arms crossed, balanced back on the rear legs of his chair. He appeared to me to be getting well on in years... so, it wasn't altogether clear that he was alive, let alone awake.
But… when I got to the point of saying, "Those alumni who were actively engaged in extracurricular activities are 69% more likely to have made a donation to the School since graduation," Bill's eyes opened, his chair came back to level, and his hand slapped down on the tabletop.
"I'd like to propose," said Bill in a slightly creaky, older-man's-voice, "that we dispense with the academic program… and replace it with more extracurricular activities."
Noureddine was the Chair of Mathematics at a small school in Southern California. In preparation for a round of surveys, I asked to sit in on a class or two, just to immerse myself a bit in the school community. Noureddine was teaching a class on Multiple Variable Calculus.
I studied this stuff… way back in 1976… couldn't understand a thing Noureddine said… but what he was doing was perfectly clear. For 70 minutes, he had his students up at the boards in small groups, each attacking a number of problems, and then, amongst themselves across groups, sharing their answers, and their various strategies for solving these problems. Nobody sat down for 70 minutes… except me.
With the conclusion of each problem, Noureddine would shout, "change ‘em up" and one student from each group would shift to the next. These kids were living and learning the subject that day… at the same time, their social, peer pressure, group-goal, leadership, and team skills were being advanced … and they were having a blast.
As for me, I came away with no better understanding of the math… but I was mesmerized by the sheer beauty of what Noureddine had achieved. It looked and felt like no math class I had ever attended.
When I talk about 'higher performing schools', my Noureddine story always comes up. I cringe when I see clients overstressing small class size as a key point of distinction in marketing materials. Is class size important? Of course it is. At the same time, class size is not the heart of the matter. Individual attention and engagement are the key variables. Class size is important only insofar as it enables you to deliver more and better individual attention to students. Time and again… in fact, the results from every single parent survey I’ve conducted (numbering more than 100 so far) have supported the same key conclusion.
The number one factor in differentiating lesser from greater satisfied parents is performance in delivering individual attention. Bar none. This factor stands head and shoulders above all else in the decision to enroll a child in an independent school. Bar none.
Individual attention, in turn, comes directly from engagement. Schools whose students go home, sharing with their parents such stories about … Multiple Variable Calculus classes… are in a much stronger position to struggle with resistance to rising class sizes and rising tuitions. Such an engaged and engaging teacher is the key asset to a higher performing school.
Class size is a function of the number one line item in your budget… teacher salaries. Schools who push class size as such a prominent point of differentiation find themselves at risk of choking on their own message. Focus instead on what class size enables… engaging teachers. This is the heart of the matter.
The message is strong and unmistakable.
Engagement is everything!
Engagement is everything is the theme of my presentation. It's also my soap box. Drag me down if you can… no, don't bother trying. You will not succeed.
Over the past 15 years, I've completed more than 275 constituent surveys for more than 80 independent schools across the United States and Canada. These have been comprehensive surveys of parents, students, employees, and alumni, typically asking more than 120 questions, and covering a wide variety of topics. With more than 125,000 respondents to these comprehensive surveys, you might well imagine that I’m sitting on a tidy sum of data. Indeed, I am. I’ve already begun to share with you what may be the most important takeaway from all this work. Engagement is everything.
Hormone Highway – navigating Grade 8
This is the title of a recent blog entry on my website… The gist of this piece is as follows. If I were to pursue my early dream of being an English teacher, knowing what I know now… it wouldn’t be for Grade 8. I hear too regularly of how schools face the challenges of what they call Hormone Highway. Well, actually, they call it something else that starts with “H” but this is a family program so let’s just leave that alone. I see evidence of this change of life in surveys of students and also in surveys of parents. Comparing results crossed by grade of enrollment, we can see ratings chug along, Grade 5… Grade 6… Grade 7… oops! Puberty strikes.
Parents display puberty right alongside their children. It’s as if they’re going through the process all over again. Often, Grade 8 parents punish schools in survey ratings, only to recover again when their kids advance to Grade 9. Students, along with their parents, undergo precipitous drops in scores when puberty arrives. Well… here’s the thing.
For one school, not only did I not see these drops in scores. Quite the opposite. Parents and students, alike, displayed upward spikes in scores, for many key measures in the survey. Well, my answer to this was to spend two full days ripping the data apart in every which way, hoping to better understand this anomaly. Couldn’t do it. There was nothing there, so I went back to the school empty handed on this point. When it came to this spot in my PowerPoint presentation, I showed the slides, then explained the norm, and threw up my arms, asking them to tell me what was going on. They all started laughing at the same time.
“Cough it up,” I said. Here’s their secret… and it’s so simple that it’s brilliant. Particular to the Grade 8 class, this school has introduced a peer-tutoring program. Every student in Grade 8 is responsible for tutoring another student at the school. They’ve studied puberty and concluded that the greatest challenge comes from getting all wrapped up in oneself and one’s own misery. "I’ve got pimples. I’m ugly. I’m fat. I’m stupid. Everybody hates me, and I don’t belong here… or anywhere else for that matter."
By initiating the peer-tutoring experience, this school has enjoyed great success in dragging kids outside of themselves and into the role of helping someone else in need. Rather than ignoring puberty, or dismissing it as a necessary evil, the school has elected to purposefully engage these students in larger purpose. They have created program that expresses the discovery of the self through the service of others. For this, the school has been well rewarded in higher scores, by parents and students alike.
Engagement is Everything!
Many years ago, an acquaintance shared that he had recently become engaged… to be married. A visit with his betrothed to the priest offered the following lesson: "Now you are engaged to become married. I would encourage you to remain engaged if you'd like to stay married."
This notion applies directly, I think, to the independent school experience. When I conduct parent surveys, I compare answers crossed by tenure with the school. Principally, we draw this comparison to learn how successful a school has been in welcoming and integrating first-year families into the community.
Most often, I find that first-year families report the highest ratings throughout a survey. This we call the Honeymoon Effect. No surprises here.
Commonly, we learn that a school has performed its obligatory handholding assignment through the first year of tenure. Unfortunately, this handholding is often dropped entirely with the second year, and ratings dip severely across a number of key measures. In any relationship, one of the best recipes for disaster comes when one party takes the other for granted.
The honeymoon is over, and the honeymoon effect is lost.
Ever meet a couple who have been married for years and years, and still act as if they're on their honeymoon? That’s because they’re still engaged. You know the drill…
Engagement is Everything!
In the case of new enrollment by older children, we sometimes ask, “Who held the greatest influence in the decision to come to the School?". Options are: parent; child; and shared equally.
To reduce the hundreds of pages of tables and graphs into a small number of takeaways: First, more parents than one might expect will confess to having dominated the enrollment decision. Second, according to their children, many of the others are lying. Students report in significantly greater proportion that their parents dominated this decision. I should also say that there are many topics for which parent ratings are disputed or dismissed by concurrent student surveys. Some parents haven’t the first clue of what’s going on in their children’s lives.
Third, and here's where it gets interesting, and hopefully useful: As you would expect, students who say that their parents dominated the enrollment decision consistently report lower ratings throughout the survey, compared to those who report that they were active contributors in selection of the school. But… and here's the takeaway… parents who confess to dominating the school selection decision also regularly report lower ratings of satisfaction, throughout the survey. …….
What we don’t know is whether this distinction is a function of who these domineering parents are as people… or if their kids have just torpedoed the decision, after the fact.
Of course, the highest ratings come from parents and students alike who report that this decision was shared equally. Full engagement.
Engagement is Everything!
Visitors volunteer and volunteers donate. Not rocket science, and not news to you.
Almost universally, we find that unrelated ratings of school program are higher, often much higher, coming from those who are actively engaged as volunteers. In the rare event when we find that this is not the case, a major red flag has been raised. So… to the extent that you can tolerate volunteers… this program of engagement is key to your success, in promoting higher ratings, greater affinity, greater connectedness … and greater success in raising dollars.
Employees are no different. Some years ago, I was presenting results for an employee survey to a large group of teachers. One of them raised her hand to ask, “Let’s say, for example, that this half of the room is comprised of ‘greater satisfied teachers’ and this half of the room is full of ‘lesser satisfied teachers’.
How would you counsel those of us who are lesser satisfied in efforts to become greater satisfied?" My answer, with a smile, was just two words: "Get Engaged!"
Without exception, teachers who are actively engaged in out-of-classroom activities are significantly more satisfied in employment than their unengaged counterpart. While it's true that we don't know the direction of cause and effect here, I don't care. Get engaged.
As a side note, in employee surveys, we regularly ask teachers to identify from a long list, the four most important factors contributing to a their success at the School. Then, in typical fashion, I dissect the data to learn how those who are generally more satisfied differ from those who are generally less satisfied in employment at the School.
Of great interest to me is the regular distinction that: Lesser satisfied teachers are much more likely to identify the ‘ability to work independently’ as a key success factor. In contrast, greater satisfied teachers are much more likely to identify ‘ability to work in a group’ as a key factor contributing to teacher success.
People who engage, and people who feel that engagement is a key to success, are happier people in a group environment. This finding, on its own, should be taken into account as schools endeavor to recruit for success.
Invariably, and this should be of no surprise to you… I find that teachers and staff who feel unknown by their peers… report lower scores throughout. Teachers who are isolated in their classroom 'boxes' without support, without mentors, without an ear to bend in times of need… are very unhappy people. Regularly, I find myself recommending to schools that they work to break down unnecessary barriers among staff. This means across departments and between divisions. I sometimes read in comment sections of survey forms that teachers working side by each don’t know anything about each other, except that they are a Science teacher… or a Math teacher. There’s no personal touch. No engagement. No sense of community.
Now, this is nothing scientific, but here's a suggestion.
Starting at the top, with the Head of School and senior admin team, promote the opportunity for everyone on staff, at some point during the school year, to stand up and make a 10 minute presentation about something for which he or she holds a passion. Could be about something educational. Could be about grapes in the south of France. Doesn’t matter. The point is to share something personal.
Give depth and create opportunity for greater connection. Life is too short for the alternative. I was stuck at the airport in Newark last month. Eight hours for a tornado watch. Didn’t see any tornadoes but I did strike up separate conversations during this prolonged delay with four disconnected people. I could have suffered like so many others that day. Instead, I chose to engage… and as we all know…
Engagement is Everything!
At one client school, twice a week, everything stops for forty minutes, and the entire school gathers in a grassy quad in the centre of campus for unscripted Town Meetings.
During this time, any student, teacher, or staff member can line up for a turn at the open microphone in the middle of the quad, and announce, perform, recite, praise, or vent, without prior approval from the administration. During my visit, a young lady, a junior I think, spoke for more than ten minutes, tearing a strip off the entire community for something she thought was intolerant and unjust.
The school just buzzed over this rant for the remaining two days of my visit.
At this same school, the community service program was a part of the curriculum, not an add-on. In fact, for each of the four grades, one day a month, everything else stops, and it's community service day for that grade.
Your schools have robust, fully-functional tools to help you identify students who are… academically at risk. While surveys are useful in understanding some of the school-life elements that best correlate to academic risk, in my observation, this side of the game is pretty much under control. However, the topic of the need to identify students who are socially at risk, has come up a number of times in my travels.
I like to dissect numbers. No… that’s not accurate… I just love to dissect numbers.
What interests me is how data points relate to one another in ways that can serve better understanding, better decisions, and better strategy. Derived directly from my work, in hopes of identifying socially at-risk students, I would point to three principal questions to ask of and about each child.
First, does this child have at least one very close friend at the school? When we ask this of students, the size of the group that says 'no' is generally very small, but does vary from school to school. Invariably, however, those who report the absence of such a relationship consistently report meaningfully lower ratings, throughout the entire questionnaire. This extends well past the social and relational aspects of school life.
Second, is there at least one trusted adult at school to whom the child can turn? I cannot stress enough the value of the presence of a mentor relationship, not just in ratings of the student experience… The impact is nothing less than profound. Asked of students and alumni, alike, those recalling a strong favorable influence in a trusted adult are set up for a lifelong relationship with the school.
The third question: Is this child actively and enthusiastically engaged in out-of-classroom-activities (OOCA)? Pointedly, I offer OOCA as an alternative to 'extra-curricular', as from what I can see and feel in the research we do – there is nothing extra about it. It's central to your purpose in education. Those schools that fit into the 'higher performing' category are the ones who adopt and live the mission to prepare students to 'find and forge a place for themselves within the community at large.’
To find and forge, of course, means to engage. These three key measures are all about engagement.
Engagement is Everything!
In top-line results, schools find themselves all over the map… I never make predictions here… but… I’m always impressed by the consistency in intra-data relationships that are revealed. I’ll share an example:
Regardless of the constituent group, our very first rating-type question is…
Thinking in general terms only, how would you rate your satisfaction with School X?” On a 5-point scale, this is the main barometer question in any survey I conduct. A major section of my analysis work is in the dissection of results to this question.
I want to know how lesser satisfied respondents differ from the moderately satisfied and from the most satisfied of respondents. In doing so, I’m able to come back to schools and, rather than giving them a list of 100 things to work on, I’m in the enviable position to say, ‘here are the five most important, biggest-bang-for-your-buck, things to consider as you strive to raise overall satisfaction.’
In student surveys, the average rating for this overall satisfaction question, across measured schools, is currently 3.9. For one school, however, this overall satisfaction score came back at 4.3. Another has recently come in at an impressive 4.4. As you can imagine, I was intrigued by these findings, and keen to better understand the distinctions. I dug into the data. This time, I hit pay dirt.
There were several key measures that differentiated these two schools from others in the pool.
Two stand out, head and shoulders above the rest. These are attitudinal agreement measures: School X encourages a love of learning in me; and I am encouraged to express my opinion at School X. For both of these engagement measures, scores came out more than two full standard deviations above the mean. This is huge! In other words, success in raising student agreement with these two statements will have a profound impact in raising overall student satisfaction.
The same two measures, asked in young alumni surveys, reveal the same dramatic distinctions in reported overall satisfaction.
Consider yet another attitudinal agreement measure:
School X played a significant role in the development of my character and values.
Agreement with this statement is highly correlated with recall of the mentor relationship. Do you see a theme coming through here? If not, please shoot me now.
The existence of a strong, favorable mentor relationship reaches far in its influence, long past the student experience, into forming a basis for the lifelong relationship of a graduate both to the school and to the world at large. This would include distinctions for each of the following:

On this last point, I see such strong associations that a regular recommendation to schools is that they make sure to use the words ‘character’ and ‘values’ prominently in fundraising initiatives.
Seemingly obscure associations across data are not to be overlooked. At one school I’ve worked with for more than a dozen years… and through as many surveys, I found connections in the data between interest in learning about planned giving and interest in attending pub nights. I jokingly suggested in my results presentation that they set up a planned giving table near the bar (have another drink, then sign here) … apparently they acted on my suggestion, and enjoyed some success. As they say, don’t ask… and you won’t get.
Speaking of alumni, there's a list of skills included in a question where we ask: "How well prepared do you feel you were for each of the following, upon graduation from School X?" It's a mix of core academic and life skills, typically numbering between 18 and 24.
When we compare answers to these ratings for those who were actively engaged in OOCA to those not so actively engaged, preparedness across skills that fall into the core academic category does not vary significantly from one group to the other.
However, when we look at those skills from the social and relational category, the difference is like night and day. Social and relational skills are best imparted through OOCA… or through engaging classrooms like that of Noureddine, as described above.
From the results of one young alumni surveys, and I won’t get too technical here… the chi square statistic… in a test of independence between engagement in OOCA and the development of leadership skills was measured at greater than 71.
To put this in context, in a 2x2 chi square test of independence, anything above the critical value of just 3.841 is meaningful. Again, this is huge.
It brings to mind the frequent story I hear from schools that there are parents who will say, "I don't want Johnny or Susie to participate in OOCA this term. He or she needs to stick to the books and focus on academics." These are the same parents, by the way, who want their children to become the next leaders of the free world. Hmmm…
Going even further, I’ve identified what appears to be an inverse relationship between withdrawal from OOCA in the Junior and Senior years of high school and academic performance in the first term of college.
To be clear, what I have found suggests that those kids who withdraw from engagement in out-of-classroom activities before graduating from high school may actually attain lower academic grades upon arrival at college. More cause-and-effect research is required in this area.
I’ve also found that, for those who were not actively engaged in OOCA, there is a factor of up to three times the incidence of changing colleges before completion of the undergraduate degree.
Moreover, I have seen up to four times the incidence of a change in academic major for those not engaged in OOCA at the high school level.
Engagement is Everything!
A number of years ago, an elderly gentleman had become quite engaged in the process of completing his paper version of the questionnaire for an alumni survey we were conducting. He wrote on his form something to the effect of, "As I fill out this survey, I realize how ambivalent I've been about my relationship to the School since I was a student there. When I put down my pen, I'm going to call my attorney, and amend my will in favor of the School." I just smiled and placed his questionnaire on the top of the pile.
Another alumni survey, this one driven by the advancement function, identified 600 respondents who named social elitism as the greatest weakness of the school. From a non-anonymous survey of alumni, this was a valuable insight to possess. A couple of years later, and only in passing, my friend and contact at the School mentioned to me that, about six months after completion of the project, the Head of School sent out a mail-merge letter to these 600 particular alumni… something to the effect of, "thanks very much for participating in the survey… I noticed that you marked social elitism as the school’s greatest weakness. I’m writing to say that I agree with you and also to tell you a bit about what we’ve been doing in recent years to combat this weakness."
Well, as the story goes, my friend ran the numbers on this group of 600. To the time of the survey project, fully 500 of them had never… ever… made a gift to the school. Stemming from this simple mail-merge letter, 250 of these 500 participated in the next year’s annual fund. Again… huge. That very minor response (among many responses) more than paid for the whole project.
Here is one of my favorite stories. It involves a current Head of School whom I've known since he was Director of Admissions at a prominent school in the Midwest.
As he tells the story, he carried a blue binder with him to every meeting he attended. It was his blue book of survey results, a compilation of results from parent, student, employee, and alumni surveys. While not a board member at the school, his boss invited him to attend, sitting beside her. Sometimes, at board meetings, people tend to venture off on tangents, pontificating on subjects for which they know nothing. You may have witnessed such a thing yourself. Well, when this happened, my friend would start thumbing his way through the blue binder. Seeing this, when the rambling subsided, the Head of School would ask if he, my friend, had anything to add to the discussion. His answer would go something like this: "I hear what you’re saying, but that’s just not what the market is telling us…" and with a thud, the book would land on the table. Over a period of years, this experience trained board members to glance over at my friend whenever they started talking. If he had begun to page through his infernal blue book, they just stopped in their tracks. Don’t underestimate the value of the ‘thud’ factor.
Speaking of the thud factor, I regularly hear from Heads of School, who, laughing on the other end of the line, will tell me about someone who had just walked out of their office. "He was pounding on my desk, saying, ‘everybody feels this way,’ and I was able to turn around to my credenza, pull open your report and answer… well, hold on a second there – we asked that question on last Spring’s survey, and let me see here… yes, one person said that… it must have been you."
With respect,

Kevin Graham

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