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Seeking Customer Satisfaction

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An experiment to quell public skepticism about public schools

It is sometimes dangerous in education circles to talk about customer service. I often hear that we can't do that because there is uncertainty about who the customer is. Is the customer the students? The parents of our students? Or is the customer the taxpayers?

To which I say: Yes. The goal should be to treat all of them, particularly parents, as valued customers.

In Rochester, N.Y., we're trying to make sure we keep the customer in mind by acting as if our job depends on their satisfaction. Because it does.

While there is great public demand for making schools better, there is also growing skepticism about the ability of public schools to deliver. I believe this skepticism is behind rising public interest in home schooling, in charter schools, and in vouchers that would provide parents money to pay for their child's tuition in private or parochial schools.

I have no crystal ball. I don't know how this debate will eventually come out. But, in Rochester, I believe we can compete by doing what we do best--providing a high-quality education to every one of our 37,000 students, and treating each of their parents as a valued customer who needs to be listened to.

In collaboration with the Rochester Teachers Association, we have just developed a customer-satisfaction survey--a "parent input form"--that every parent will get to fill out in February on each of his or her child's teachers. The 19-question parent survey asks about parent-teacher communications, about the home involvement of teachers, and about the support and feedback they receive from teachers about their child's progress. ("Parents in N.Y. District To Critique Teachers," Sept. 17, 1997.)

The survey was developed by a committee of teachers, parents, a principal, and representatives of the district's central office. Here are four of the survey items; each can be answered by checking a box marked "usually," "sometimes," "rarely," "don't know," or "doesn't apply":

  • The teacher makes clear what my child is expected to learn in this class.
  • The teacher deals with me in a fair and respectful manner.
  • As needed, the teacher and I develop a cooperative strategy to help my child.
  • The teacher encourages my child to work hard to succeed.

The responses will go directly to the teachers, although parents will also have the opportunity to send their customer-satisfaction surveys along to school principals. If they choose to, Rochester teachers can bring this parent-satisfaction information into their annual evaluation process, as can their principals. Our goal is to put good customer-satisfaction data in the hands of each of our teachers. We want them to know, as any good professional wants to know, how parents feel about the jobs they are doing.

Our goal is to put good customer-satisfaction data in the hands of each of our teachers.

This is not a mere exercise in involving parents but an effort to get them more engaged in their child's education. This is about keeping our organization and our work focused on what parents care about most--students meeting high standards. Over the past couple of years, the Rochester schools have become very focused, and we are seeing results.

In 1995, we announced a series of performance benchmarks--goals--for the schools and the community to tackle to improve learning and outcomes for our students. The benchmarks provided a focus. For example, the first three benchmarks focus on reading, writing, and mathematics. We will announce our latest progress this month, but in each of these areas, students are making significant gains, in some cases exceeding tough targets.

Those performance benchmarks grew out of listening to the Rochester community--to parents, to students, to teachers, to taxpayers, to politicians. And this listening is at the heart of customer service.

We are now in the process of using professionally run "focus groups" to understand how our community feels about our benchmarks, to understand what revisions they want after two years. We are asking them if we are concentrating on the right priorities.

As one of the authors of those benchmarks, I'm hoping the answer is yes. But we need to regularly check to be sure our customers are convinced we are doing the right things, and regularly make adjustments in areas where they believe we are falling short.

This work is easy, but not always comfortable. We all like to hear praise, but most of us don't much care for criticism, even the constructive kind and even when we know it is justified. Yet it is imperative that we listen to parents as they provide input into the evaluation of teachers. And in Rochester we are listening to more than the parents. We also are developing a survey that will go to every teacher asking them to answer a series of questions about their administrators. Meanwhile, my own performance as superintendent is judged publicly by an elected school board, which is in turn accountable to the voting public.

And that is how it should be. After all, we have to remember that our customers are the folks who provide the resources to operate the school system. If they're not satisfied, we need to know it. And we need to make whatever changes are necessary to make sure the children of our city get the education they deserve--and the education that parents or the taxpayers have a right to expect.

Clifford B. Janey is the superintendent of the Rochester City School District in Rochester, N.Y.

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