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#AskExcelinEd: 4 Questions to Assess Parent Satisfaction with Distance Learning

• Cara Candal and Sam Duell

This spring, educators and families nationwide navigated a heroic transition to distance learning. Now, new surveys and polls are offering insight into what worked and what didn’t. We reviewed these resources and identified four questions states and schools can consider as they assess parent satisfaction with distance learning.

As schools across the country grapple with how to safely reopen, we are still learning about the educational experiences of students and parents throughout the spring. Polls suggest that distance learning programs this spring varied greatly in quality. While no one group was overwhelmingly satisfied, low-income parents and students are among the most disappointed, according to some polls. Even with the knowledge that distance learning was ineffective for many students, some of the most recent polls suggest a majority of parents nationwide express fear that reopening school in the fall isn’t safe. So, what can we do? Perhaps we can learn from some of the parent satisfaction trends of Spring 2020.

1. What did families say about their distance-learning experience in the spring?

Education Next’s survey of 4,291 parents found that satisfaction with distance learning broke down not only according to socioeconomic status, but also according to school type. For example, charter school parents—who are more likely to be Black, Hispanic, from urban areas and from low-income families—reported higher levels of satisfaction with distance learning than their district school counterparts. Private school parents also reported higher levels of satisfaction than district school parents, though they weren’t quite as satisfied as their charter-parent peers. Education Trust New York conducted a smaller poll of parents in New York State and found that parents reported greater initial satisfaction with the distance learning experience in March, but satisfaction dropped from 57% to 43% by June, driven mainly by low-income respondents.

2. What aspects of schooling left parents so dissatisfied?

Access to teachers and teacher feedback on student assignments were important drivers. The more access students had to teachers, the higher the level of satisfaction. Both Education Next and Education Trust reported that parents were more likely to report satisfaction with distance learning if students were interacting with teachers often (more than once or twice a week) and receiving feedback on assigned work.

Lower-income parents, especially, reported decreased satisfaction as they continued to experience a lack of consistent access to technology and food insecurity during the pandemic. Clearly, if students don’t have reliable access to technology or if school was a place where families had access to meals (before but not during the pandemic), learning is more difficult. Of course, some of these structural conditions relate to long-standing systems that have favored certain groups of people and disadvantaged others. (For more on that, see this recent blog about Redlining.) These are issues that states and localities need to address swiftly.

But what accounts for differences in parent satisfaction according to school model? Here, we can only speculate.

3. Why did families in charter and private schools report higher rates of satisfaction during the spring?

Across income levels, charter and private school parents report having better distance learning experiences than their district counterparts, and the very nature of the relationship that parents have to these types of schools may be a factor.

When families are assigned to schools because of where they live, the school has entered a passive relationship with the family where students and families come to the school for services. Parents and children arrive, schools and teachers will (ideally) assess individual and family needs and then deliver education accordingly. Since the inception of Horace Mann’s “Common School,” zoned school districts have been about providing a common curriculum and a common experience for students. In some cases, this approach works for students and families. In others, it doesn’t. But the pandemic and the move to distance learning may have changed how schools and families relate to each other. Rather than the families coming to the schools, the schools now had to go to the families. To a certain degree, it was a paradigm shift—from a passive relationship to an active one.

Public charter schools and private schools, however, have always had to provide a reason for students and parents to enroll. They may offer a distinctive curriculum or pedagogical approach. Perhaps they have a reputation for high standards or strong outcomes. It could be a different reason for each student or family, but from the outset these schools must show parents that they have something worthy to offer.

This simple act of choosing a school might partly account for greater parent satisfaction with private schools and charters; parents chose these schools for a reason and might, therefore, have more faith in the relationship from the outset. Education Next found that 71% percent of all parents reported being satisfied with their school’s overall response to the pandemic, even though almost the same percentage reported that students had suffered learning loss during the pandemic. But charter and private school parents were more likely to remain satisfied with their schools and report better learning experiences, overall. What accounts for this trend?

Rocketship Public Schools, a network of charters, provides a clue. Early into its distance learning experience, Rocketship perceived that learning at home wasn’t working for some families. At the beginning of the pandemic, only a small percentage of students were engaging with the school daily. To find out why, staff surveyed parents every morning to understand what students and families needed to learn at home. Rocketship staff collected and analyzed the survey data by noon each day and worked to address those needs by the end of that same day. By the end of the school year, school reports demonstrated that nearly every student engaged with the school daily.

We would guess that Rocketship families were engaged because their schools actively inquired about their needs. 

We do not have surefire data that tells why engagement improved so drastically, but maybe students and families are more willing to engage in distance learning when schools proactively seek interactions with students and families.

4. What might school districts learn from their charter and private school peers?

First and foremost, a proactive approach to understanding what students and families need is critical. When a school actively asks parents what they want and need, it becomes much easier to meet parent expectations. Communication matters. Parents want to know that teachers are available, listening and providing feedback to students, even if it all happens over Zoom.

The good news is that every school (district, charter or private) can likely increase engagement if they actively seek to understand families, meet their needs and connect students and teachers several times per week.

Learn More

  • What American Families Experienced When COVID-19 Closed Their Schools (Education Next, 2020 Survey) – Charter and Private Schools provided more opportunities for student-teacher interactions.
  • Parent Survey Identifies Ongoing Education Needs for New York Families (Education Trust – NY, June 26, 2020) – A poll of 800 New York public school parents reaffirmed that parents want consistent interactions between teachers and students.
  • Teachers and Parents Expect Schools to Reopen in the Fall (USA Today/IPSOS, May 26, 2020) – A poll of 2,008 adults surveyed in May indicated that due to challenges with distance learning in the spring teachers and parents expected schools to fully reopen in the fall.
  • How much of a risk to your health and well-being is sending your child to school in the fall? (Axios-IPSOS, July 13, 2020) – A poll of 219 parents found that 71% view school reopening as a large or moderate risk to the health of their family.
  • Just 19% of Americans Want to See Schools Fully Reopen for Fall Sessions (HuffPost, YouGov, July 16, 2020) – A poll of 1,000 American citizens finds that only 19% of those surveyed would want to see schools fully reopened while 42% would want schools to go online or remain closed.
  • As districts work to reopen, parents flee to virtual schools (ReadFrontier, July 20, 2020) – The largest online school in Oklahoma project their enrollment could increase by 57% this year, making them the largest education system in the state.
  • Three Examples: Elementary Charters Instructing Young Children at a Distance (ExcelinEd, May 15, 2020) – A short blog that outlines how three charter schools served students during the spring, highlighting the differences between active and passive services and between synchronous and asynchronous instruction.

About the authors

Cara Candal

Cara Candal serves as Director of Educational Opportunity, focusing on private school choice, for ExcelinEd. Cara has spent the last 10 years working in education policy as a Senior Fellow with both Pioneer Institute and the Center for Education Reform. She was also a founding team member of the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE) and a research assistant professor at Boston University in the Department of Educational Leadership and Development. Cara has authored/edited more than 25 papers and three books on education policy. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Indiana University, a Masters of Arts in Social Science from the University of Chicago and a Doctorate of Education from Boston University.

Sam Duell

Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.