We live in a world awash with data.

Sometimes that data is helpful, like when you look down at your fuel gauge and see the needle on E and decide based on that information to pull into the nearest gas station.

Sometimes the data can be interesting but less helpful, like when you go to order a latest book from your all-time favorite author only to see that Amazon readers have given her only three stars for her latest effort. Does this stop you from buying? Who are these animals that don’t appreciate her full genius? Should you read the comments from the haters, or will that only ruin your day and potentially spoil the book you will buy and read anyway?

Data in the world of education can fall into similar categories. We live in world where it is increasingly easy to put a measurement on something. We survey, assess and measure regularly, all the while encouraging a holistic and long-term view of personal and intellectual growth.  In the end, we want data to help us understand our world in better ways and inform actions and strategies in meaningful ways.

The Community Survey

Here at Cary Academy we rely on a variety of data points to gauge the effectiveness of our programs and chart plans for improvement.

One important instrument is our semi-annual Community Survey. This survey was designed by the Independent Schools Association of Central States (ISACS) to measure constituent views on the quality of programming at independent schools. We’ve used the survey for many years and find it helpful to not only measure Cary Academy against other independent schools but to also measure us against ourselves.

The latest survey was given in the spring of 2014, with 376 parents, 246 Upper School students, and most faculty and staff responding. Over the course of the fall, we shared the results of this survey with parents at each of our grade-level PTAA coffees. Here are some of the highlights:

High constituency satisfaction

Overall, Cary Academy constituents (broken into the separate groups of parents, students, faculty and staff) ranked us similar to other independent schools in 54% of the questions. In 43% of the questions, we were ranked higher than other constituents’ ranked their respective schools. In 3% of the cases, we scored lower.

The most important question on the survey was an individual’s view of the “overall quality of education” at Cary Academy. Percentages of satisfaction were based on how many people ranked the quality of education “excellent” or “very good” on a five-point Likert scale.

The breakdown of satisfaction by constituent:

  • Parents           88%
  • Faculty            97%
  • US students   83%
  • Staff                97%

In all four areas, our scores exceed the ISACS benchmark. The distance between our scores and the benchmarks were even higher when asked about the quality of education versus “comparable schools.”

Strengths revealed

When we looked at the survey to help determine our strengths, the following three areas emerged with highest level of positive agreement among all four constituent groups:

  • The school supports academic achievement.
  • Both boys and girls have an opportunity for success.
  • The school has a strong commitment to moral values and character development.

Exceeding our peers

Of course, other independent schools also do well in these areas, so we then looked at only the high-performing areas where we exceeded our benchmark schools. We call these our differentiators. They were:

  • College counseling program
  • Faculty professional development
  • School resources
  • Our academic and library services
  • Our commitment to innovation
  • Our commitment to diversity and inclusion

Examining our differentiators is important during a year of strategic planning – such as this – because it helps us to better take advantage of areas that are natural strengths.

Always room for improvement

Of course, we also use the survey to discover areas for improvement. Here the survey is valuable in helping us understand areas of concern, even if the survey doesn’t tell us exactly where we’ve gone wrong. In this area, students voiced some concerns about the PE program, athletics and grading systems. Faculty shared concerns about grading and assessment. Parents voiced concerns about community service, school spirit and character development.

In each of these areas, we’ve begun a conversation to better understand what led to the lower scores and to develop plans to improve.

Overall, we are grateful for the strong community response to our programs. The survey has given us some great data to use in the current strategic planning process and also in our regular goal setting and operational improvement planning.