Is the Independent School Parent Your Customer?

About ten years ago, during my tenure as head of school, a parent said to me, “I hope you don’t mind that I am complaining. After all, when I’m unhappy at my dry cleaners, I speak up.” At the time, this sent me into quiet paroxysms. Did she really think that paying tuition was like buying a dry-cleaning service?  Did she not see the responsibility for a child’s well being and the pastoral role the school embraces as more a relationship than a purchase?

At the same time, my Board was nudging me to do a parent satisfaction survey. I resisted. Wouldn’t that further the growing consumer mentality I was working to keep at bay?

A decade later, and no longer in that role, I’ve begun to see these questions in a different light. Parent surveys are now common. Much is written about the value of collecting and leveraging data, particularly where our Gen X constituents are concerned. And we know that word-of-mouth marketing is our most powerful enrollment tool.

Several consulting firms now offer data collection and interpretation services to independent schools. The Independent Schools Association of the Central States offers a constituent survey through Bob Dicus of Marketing Research Technologies and Chris Everett of The Kensington Group and is showcasing the work of another firm, Measuring Success, at its upcoming Heads of School Conference.

ultimate queston

Fred Reichheld’s development of the Net Promoter System is a particularly interesting approach to gauging customer satisfaction. I’d give it high marks for its simplicity, a tone that does not promote a sense of consumer-oriented entitlement, and clear emphasis on behavior. Originally implemented in the for-profit sector, NPS is growing in its application to nonprofits including independent schools guided by Reichheld’s firm, Bain & Co.

Applying the NPS to parents in the school setting, the questions are:

  • On a scale of 0-10 (10 high), how likely are you to recommend School X?
  • Why did you give School X that rating?

Arnie Zar-Kessler, Head of School at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, explored the use of the NPS in Jewish day schools in a presentation at the RAVSAK/PARDES Jewish Day School Leadership Conference on January 19: Forget the Marketing, Dump the Branding — It’s All About Loyalty Now: An NPS Primer for JDS’s.

Steve Hinds, Headmaster at Meadowbrook School (MA), and his colleague Lisa Lebovitz will be joined by Melissa Artabane of Bain & Co. at the NAIS Annual Conference on February 28 in the presentation of The Ultimate Question: Does Your School Ask It?, an overview of their use of NPS for an annual parent survey and related administrative goal setting.

Reichheld’s book (with Rob Markey), The Ultimate Question 2.0: How Net Promoter Companies Thrive in a Customer Driven World (Harvard Business Press Books, 2011), is worth a look.

The Annual Fund Major Gift: Is It Elementary?

Independent elementary schools typically raise less in annual giving than their secondary-school counterparts. While participation for most constituent groups is superior at the elementary school level (with alums and alumni/ae parents being the big exceptions), the gifts tend to be smaller — and not insignificantly so.

National Association of Independent Schools Vice President for Online Services Hilary LaMonte shared the data illustrated below at the 2014 CASE/NAIS Annual Conference in mid-January.

ElementaryDevelopment-CASE-NAIS2014 1-20-14 one slidepptx

Elementary and Secondary School Median Annual Giving By Constituent Group (Source: NAIS 2013 Fall Survey)

The conference session was “Elementary Schools by the Numbers.” Matthew Gould of Community School (MO) and I joined Hilary to explore this and related data with our audience and to engage them in discussion about the implications.

Why is the median gift for independent school trustees at the secondary level $7,906 while the median gift at the elementary school level is $2,976 — approximately half its size? Ditto for the median gift for current parents: $1,431 for secondary schools compared to $871 for elementary schools?

We can surmise that the average size of secondary schools is somewhat larger than elementary schools, and it would be interesting to look at the data with a control for enrollment. Having now placed that variable on the table, is it possible that it fully explains the phenomenon? We — and our colleagues in the conference session — had some other ideas.

We noted that Board and parent bodies differ to some extent in these two environments, with the secondary school having the edge in recruiting trustees and engaging parents at a later point in their careers and, therefore, earning trajectory.

Secondary schools often inherit parents from an elementary school that has done the work of educating them about the need for an Annual Fund, the gap between cost per student and tuition, and the benefits of giving. Matthew jokingly commented that it has occurred to him that the secondary schools might consider sharing the goods with their sending schools by passing along a finder’s fee!

We’d guess that elementary schools tend to have smaller staffs and smaller budgets than their secondary school cousins. Often, the elementary school development officer has a multi-faceted role, including publications, public relations, and/or liaison to the parent association — less common in secondary schools. There may be a case for further Board education about the benefit of investing funds in advancement efforts.

The most profound point we discussed, I think, was the differences in the sophistication of the development effort regarding major gifts. Based on our sample of about 60 development officers with us on that afternoon, elementary schools are not typically embracing a face-to-face, name-a-number solicitation for their largest annual giving prospects. Volunteer discomfort with this approach was one explanation offered, with a participant commenting that 80% of her volunteers would quit if asked to name an amount in a conversation with a donor prospect. We talked about how to leverage the 20% in the balance — assigning them to the most promising prospective benefactors and asking them to serve as model and mentor to others in order to increase comfort with this approach. Several folks gave examples of creating “the ask” in the form of a letter from the development office, head of school, or board member, so that the volunteer’s role is simply to follow-up with a personal contact.

It was heartening to hear conference participants encouraging and offering resources to each other. I hope this post extends the conversation.

Prediction & Response: Engaging Learners

Two articles about pedagogy caught my attention on Twitter* last week.

In What’s Your Best Guess? Predicting Answers Leads to Deeper Learning (Mind/Shift, 2/24/12), author and journalist Annie Murphy Paul emphasizes the power of engaging learners by asking them to make a prediction before offering them information. While many teachers use this strategy, it may not be a staple of the repertoire. And perhaps it should be!

Inspired, my colleagues and I restructured our presentation at the CASE/NAIS Annual Conference this week, asking participants in our session to predict data before we shared it. You can guess the effect. Our hour together seemed more interactive, participants seemed to have a greater vested interest in hearing what we had to say, and an element of fun was interjected. The session had a good discussion dynamic, and I suspect that Annie Murphy Paul deserves some credit.


Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

In Sticking with Students, Responding Effectively to Incorrect Answers (EdWeek, 1/6/14), Riverdale Country School reading specialist Brooke McCaffrey acknowledges teachers’ inclination to move on swiftly when a student offers on off-the-mark response or expresses confusion in front of classmates. She nudges us to instead use a variety of strategies to help that student reach the right answer, including validating any parts of the response that were correct, offering a cue, restating the question, and giving the student additional time. She points out that this approach conveys to the student both high expectations and belief in that student’s ability to learn. Perhaps more important, McCaffrey offers us some strategies for avoiding these potentially awkward moments: providing wait time before expecting a response and asking students to process a response first with a partner before bringing it to the group.

Like Paul’s points, McCaffrey’s words have applicability to our work with adults. I remember learning in those undergraduate education classes (in the Dark Ages) to count to ten to allow for response time. In the moment, this can seem like an eternity, but it works. In a class of fourth graders, in a faculty meeting, in a conference workshop, as soon as participants realize you’re going to wait for them to process, the energy and dynamic in the room shifts.

*Thanks to Twitter colleagues @MindShiftKQED and @granadosmaggie for enriching my reading diet.


Here’s a coming-of-age film portraying the life of an Arab girl. Making it even more novel, it’s reportedly the first feature film directed by a Saudi woman. Haifaa Al-Mansour gives us an appealing, surprisingly spirited character in Wadjda and a sensitive, subtle depiction of Arab family life. It’s a fascinating exploration of resilience — and, yes, grit.

If you work with middle schoolers, you should see this film. Better yet, if you work with middle schoolers, you should take them to see this film. The movie is rich with topics for discussion and opportunities for cross-cultural understanding. I offer two minor cautions. You’ll want to prepare them for the foreign-film experience of reading subtitles. And, though the film is rated PG, there’s one queasy-making moment when 10-year-old Wadjda deals with a sexual taunt from a group of adult men, but she handles it with aplomb.

Don’t miss it.