Illinois Surveys Teachers, Students and Parents on the Essentials of School Success

More schools are using survey data to identify barriers to school improvement and increased student learning.

When Kenneth Scott became principal of Mae Jemison Elementary School in Hazel Crest four years ago, there was little parent involvement and few after school activities for children. To change that, he started a basketball team and cheerleading squad. But, because the school only had 15 uniforms for each, not many students could participate.

Scott knew he needed to do more. That recognition was strengthened by data from a first-ever survey about the school’s culture and learning environment, administered in spring 2013 to the school’s students, teachers and parents. “The parents wanted their children to be part of the school culture and community even if they didn’t have a great jump shot,” he said. He started clubs for art, chess and computers as well as groups to mentor girls and boys. The response was gratifying. Thirty-one of the school’s 400 students signed up for the chess club alone, and whereas he had previously set up 250 chairs for parents and students attending the school’s Christmas or Black History presentations, he now needed more than 600. The growth in parent involvement was “exponential,” he said.

“The survey results made me really put my foot on the gas and get things going,” Scott said.

The Essentials of School Success

The survey Scott is referring to is the Illinois 5Essentials Survey that asks teachers and sixth- through twelfth-grade students about their perceptions of school leadership, safety, teacher collaboration, family involvement and instruction. Although not required, some districts, such as Prairie Hills School District 144, where Scott is principal, chose to survey parents as well.

Versions of the survey of learning conditions have been used for 20 years in Chicago. An in-depth analysis conducted by the University of Chicago Consortium for School This graphic provides information about the five essentials for school success. The graphic includes the following text. An analysis of 15 years of survey and achievement data by researchers at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research revealed that schools strong on at least three of the Five Essentials are 10 times more likely to improve in mathematics and reading. They are: 1. Effective Leaders: The principal works with teachers to implement a clear and strategic vision for school success. 2. Collaborative Teachers: The staff is committed to the school, receives strong professional development and works together to improve the school. 3. Involved Families: The entire school staff builds strong relationships with families and communities to support learning. 4. Supportive Environment: The school is safe and orderly. Teachers have high expectations for students. Students are supported by their teachers and peers. 5. Ambitious instruction: Classes are academically demanding and engage students by emphasizing the application of knowledge.Research found that schools with strong showings in just three of those five areas are 10 times more likely to see growth in student achievement than similar schools with weaker results; such schools also are 30 times less likely to see student achievement stay the same or decline.

Recent Illinois legislation required all public schools in the State to survey teachers and students every other year beginning in 2013 to provide teachers and leaders with data to help them create a school environment conducive to teaching and learning. The State is covering the survey’s cost for three years with funds from its Race to the Top grant and requiring the 32 Race to the Top partner districts to conduct the survey annually.

Julie A. Evans, who is a supervisor in the Illinois State Board of Education’s Center for Performance, stresses that the survey is designed to help guide school improvement efforts by providing administrators with information about schools’ strengths and areas needing attention. “I wish schools had had these surveys when my kids were in school,” she said. “They are valuable when you’re talking about the school improvement process and student growth and achievement.”

State officials acknowledge that some superintendents and principals questioned the validity of the survey results and worried that they would be disparaging. That’s one reason 2013 data were not made public. Those concerns are reflected in a statewide survey of principals and superintendents conducted by the Illinois Education Research Council on how school districts used the first-year results. Even so, 82 percent of the superintendents said they discussed the data with district leaders and 68 percent made sure that teachers received the data. Sixty-nine percent of principals said they discussed the data with their school improvement teams.  About half of the principals used the data to make improvements at their school.

The State is working on a number of changes in response to educators’ concerns, including modifying some of the questions to make them clearer and allowing districts to use an alternative school climate survey, if approved by the Illinois State Board of Education. This fall, however, the 5Essentials findings will be put on the Internet as part of schools’ annual report cards—as required by the State law.

A Tool for Organizational Growth

“Everybody doesn’t necessarily want to hear the truth, but I’ve never been one to run from it. If you use it for what it’s intended for, you should grow and the organization should grow.”-- Kimako Patterson, superintendent of Prairie Hills School District 144 in Illinois, referring to the State’s Five Essentials Survey of students, teachers and parents.Kimako Patterson, the Prairie Hills superintendent, embraced the survey. “Everybody doesn’t necessarily want to hear the truth, but I’ve never been one to run from it,” she said. “If you use it for what it’s intended for, you should grow and the organization should grow.”

Patterson discussed the school year 2012-2013 survey responses last summer with the staffs of the district’s seven schools. “We said here’s what we look like, and we talked about why and how we can get at the root of this and make it better,” she said. “Our goal is to move this organization from good to great.”

Albert Bertani, the Interim Director of the Illinois 5Essentials survey for the University of Chicago, said “integrating this into school improvement planning is key to what success schools will have” in improving student achievement.

The responses of students, teachers and, if they’re included in the survey, parents, are used to calculate an overall rating, ranging from “not yet organized” to “well organized” for school improvement. Schools also are rated on each of the essential components as well as the 22 measures that make up the essential components. Overall responses to each of the 84 questions in the teacher survey and 55 questions in the student survey also can be analyzed to gain more detailed information.

Bertani’s group has sent experts from his team to training sessions for the State’s Race to the Top districts to talk about how to make use of the survey results in school improvement planning. More training will be provided for principals around the State this year. “The 5Essentials casts a really bright spotlight on the things that need to be addressed,” he said.

Survey Helps Establish Priorities

LaTanza Boarden, the Director of Student Learning and Accountability for Rich Township High School District 227, said its survey showed that both students and teachers wanted a more rigorous and diverse curriculum. In response, the district approved 17 new courses in areas such as health sciences, culinary arts, hospitality, information technology and architecture. Students who pass those classes will receive a certificate documenting the skills they’ve acquired.

“The point is that students were saying the curriculum was not what it should be and so we had to take a look,” Boarden said. “That demonstrates just how seriously the survey was taken.”

Carlynda Coleman, the principal of Dunbar Elementary School in East St. Louis, said her school’s survey confirmed her impression that instruction at her school was not ambitious enough. Her response was to have students chart their progress by keeping track of their mastery of individual skills. The goal was two-fold: to encourage students to take ownership of their learning and push teachers to individualize their instruction. Coleman asked her teachers to meet with each student to “talk with them about what the data are saying.”

“Our main goal is student growth…and in order to help students, we needed more ambitious instruction,” she said. “But ambitious instruction depends on both students and teachers.”

Survey Results Provide Insights for Improvement

The 1,000-student Prairie Hills Junior High School in Markham, which opened in 2012, was designed with three wings to make it possible to limit the interactions of sixth graders with older students. “A 12-year old and a 14-year old are completely different,” said Michael Moore, the school’s interim principal.  Ever since the school opened Moore and his staff have diligently supervised students in hallways and during arrival and dismissal times to discourage fighting and bullying.

This graphic lists example questions asked of students, teachers and parents. Examples of Questions Asked of Students: Does the teacher ask difficult questions on tests? How often do you debate the meaning of a reading? How often do you write a few sentences to explain how you solved a mathematics problem? Examples of Questions Asked of Teachers. Please mark the extent to which you disagree or agree with each of the following statements about your school: The principal pushes teachers to communicate regularly with parents.School staff members encourage feedback from parents and the community.Teachers really try to understand parents’ problems and concerns.Teachers work closely with parents to meet students’ needs. Examples of Questions Asked of Parents. Please mark the extent to which you disagree or agree with each of the following statements: The teacher(s) contacts me personally to discuss my child (strengths, weaknesses, accomplishments, etcetera). My child will be more successful as an adult because of this teacher(s). I am comfortable sharing my concerns with my child’s teacher(s).Even so, parents and students expressed concern in the survey about their safety in hallways and bathrooms. In response, the school has increased the presence of adults in the hallways.  To alleviate parents’ fears, he invited them to tour the building and accompany their children through an entire school day so they were familiar with the school’s safety procedures. “Safety is their primary objective, and they want to know how we’re taking care of that,” Moore said.

Another insight from the Illinois 5Essentials survey, Moore stated, was that the school’s teachers wanted more of his time. “I felt I was very visible throughout the school,” he said. “But there’s a disconnect because, for them, visible means working with them one-on-one in their classrooms and what I mean is…showing up at activities, being seen in the hallways and during the lunch period.”

As a school leader, “you can’t internalize it or say it’s not true,” he said. “I can look at the data and see how I can be reflective on my professional practice to make things better for the students, the staff and the community.”

After reviewing the survey results, he began spending more time in classrooms.


  • Communicate clearly about the survey’s purpose and value to schools.The survey is a tool for helping district and school leaders identify areas that need to be addressed to improve schools’ likelihood of academic success. The purpose of the survey must be clearly articulated and districts and schools have to accept that the perceptions articulated by teachers and students provide valuable information.
  • Train teachers and school leaders in how to use the data.The survey data is most powerful when it is used by schools’ in their improvement planning process. Schools may need technical assistance to help them build on their strengths and address their weaknesses.
  • Address concerns about the relevance of survey data. In Illinois, the survey has been used for many years in the Chicago Public Schools.  When the survey went statewide in Illinois, some educators in suburban and rural districts were concerned that some of the questions were not relevant.
  • Discuss the results with principals, teachers, parents and school boards. The leaders of Illinois districts making the most of the survey results are discussing them in meetings with administrators, faculty meetings, back-to-school nights and public school board meetings.