What does it mean to be a “good” school? And what does being “satisfied” with a district mean? Is that test scores? Disciplinary actions? Extracurricular success? My own experience?
… Or yes to all?
Obviously, success is defined by many metrics for complex organizations like schools. But just as complex is knowing what perception your stakeholders are using to judge your work. Some may be using how well-behaved kids are on field trips, while others use the quality of the football team.
Not only is this question consequential in its own right, but it’s also vital because voters are more likely to support a referendum when they are satisfied with their school district. This begs two questions.
What does being “satisfied” mean?
How does satisfaction get improved?
There are two facets to satisfaction: achievement and the public’s perception of that success. Both are necessary, and neither is sufficient. Thus, school districts must not only reach a goal; they must also have their constituency realize and understand that that occurred. This is especially true concerning voter approval of referendums in Wisconsin. In general, as satisfaction increases, the likelihood that voters will support a referendum also increases. But how do you measure satisfaction? After all, reading scores have increased, but do people know?
Previous research suggests that school boards with more stability, a strong record of financial responsibility and higher approval ratings were more likely to be associated with referendum approval (Piele & Hall, 1973; Raskinski & Rosenbaum, 1987; Kastory & Harrington, 1996). Rasinski and Rosenbaum (1987) found that qualitative evaluations of a superintendent did matter, but the evaluations may not matter in the same way for the entirety of the district’s population. They suggested that the actions of a superintendent mattered most for people who lived in the community the longest because these people were the most likely to notice the policies and procedures of the superintendent and were most likely to have a comparison reference to prior superintendents. Brokaw, Gale, and Merz (1990) not only studied who voted in referendum elections but also how these particular voters made ballot decisions. They operationalized affective beliefs about the school district by whether voters believed the superintendent was doing a good job. Voters who believed this were more likely to approve a referendum request. Recently hired school superintendents have a window of opportunity to usher through a successful referendum, but only if the new hire worked to establish trust with the community immediately (Holt, Wendt, & Smith, 2006).
In sum, the challenge is studying these factors on a broader scale. One method uses administrator tenure as a proxy for satisfaction (DeMeuse, 2020). Presumably, the longer a superintendent’s tenure, the more satisfied a district is with that person – otherwise, there would be turnover. Like all proxies, this is imperfect.
Several years ago, School Perceptions began utilizing a 0 (extremely unlikely) to 10 (extremely likely) scale to measure whether a person would recommend their school district to a friend or family member. This conception measures loyalty, choice among competition, value, ability to grow, quality of interactions, trust, and overall success (Fisher & Kordupleski, 2019; Schneider et al., 2018).
These facets, relevant in both public and private spheres, demonstrate a positive correlation between the satisfaction metric and willingness to support a referendum.
As our datasets grow, we'll have more to say about this at upcoming conferences!
The School Perceptions Blog and Resource Center features the voices of our team members. This post was written by Rob DeMeuse, Research Director.