Fine Print: Surveys of Camden Students, Teachers Encouraging, Discouraging

John Mooney | October 29, 2013 | Education
But some answers run contrary to popular notions of what problems plaque troubled urban schools

Camden High School.
What it is: The new state-appointed leadership of Camden’s public schools yesterday released the findings of surveys of more than 6,000 students and teachers who were asked about everything from the condition of school supplies and the buildings themselves to their thoughts on learning — andeach other. The survey was crafted and tabulated by Rutgers’ Bloustein Center for Survey Research.

What they found: The survey conducted last June found students and teachers alike decrying the state of school buildings and resources in the lead-up to the state takeover. Half of elementary school students surveyed and a third of high-schoolers said they didn’t always feel safe in their schools. A quarter of the adults said the same.

Attitudes matter: Maybe most notable were the similar impressions of students and teachers alike over what they see as the low expectations held for learning in Camden. About half of students said they didn’t feel that their schools were preparing them well for college and careers. Half of the teachers said they didn’t think their students could be motivated to do the necessary work. A quarter of the staff surveyed said their students didn’t care about learning.

Pondering the options: One-third of students said they wished they could attend a different school. The most dissatisfaction was with the city’s comprehensive high schools.

What it means: The release of the survey, conducted last spring, comes as the new administration led by Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard prepares to unveil a new strategic plan for the district.

Most of the survey findings highlighted yesterday spoke to specific initiatives already planned or soon to be launched in the district under the new leadership, including the massive purchase of new textbooks and technology over the summer. Still, other big changes or initiatives are sure to come, and the survey could prove to be at least one of the justifications for them.

Wide range of responses: Responses varied widely from school to school. The greatest satisfaction among middle and high schools, for example, was not surprisingly in the newest buildings like Octavio Catto School. The lowest was at the Riletta Twyne Cream School, where less than one-fifth of students said they liked the building. While nearly 90 percent of students at Sumner say there are clear rules and consequences for behavior, barely 40 percent at Dudley felt the same.

Misplaced blame: For all the complaints about problems at home and on the streets contributing to problems in the schools, students don’t put the blame on their parents. Overwhelming majorities of students of all ages said their parents want them to do well in school, and three-quarters said they would be punished for not doing their homework or missing school.

Not all bad: For all the concern that adults hold low expectations for their students, half of all the middle school and high school students said their teachers give them encouragement and “really care” about them. A strong majority said that teachers would help them if they needed it or do poorly on an assignment.

Quote: “While there are many perspectives and viewpoints on the challenges ahead of us, the most valuable insights come from our students and teachers in our classrooms every day,” said Rouhanifard in releasing the results. “These data are eye-opening, and lay out a number of areas that we must prioritize to improve student outcomes in our schools.

What it isn’t: For all the sobering news about student and teacher attitudes, the survey is only an initial snapshot that has little context at this point. Without data from previous surveys or comparison to attitudes about schools and students elsewhere, it is hard to gauge how Camden compares. The district is expected to conduct the survey again to measure its progress.

Statewide surveys: The survey tool was developed in late 2012 by the Bloustein Center in conjunction with the state Department of Education. It was hoped that it would be used by a districts statewide to gauge the learning environment in their schools. It’s not only a critical issue in districts like Camden where student performance is a concern — districts across the state are increasingly under pressure to improve the school climate, especially under the new anti-bullying law.

Three sets of questions: The district administered the survey as a paper-and-pencil questionnaire to students in their homerooms or other common classes. One survey was given to students in grades 3-5, and a different version was given to middle and high school students from grades 6-12. Teachers and staff were given a third survey, conducted online.