Who Asked You?

Mom and Dad were away for the weekend. It wasn’t really a party, per se. It was just a couple friends coming over for the evening. A little get together. A few close friends. We should have known better.

You know how this story ends. The few friends invited a few friends, and before we knew it, the house was overrun with people we didn’t know. Things were getting broken. Beverages were being spilled. The music was much louder than pretty. After the police left, there was a lot of explaining — and a lot of cleaning — to do.

But what did we learn from this experience? Don’t invite people over? Maybe. Be careful about who you invite? Probably. Don’t let people you don’t know into the house? Yeah. That’s probably a good rule of thumb.

When schools try to answer the “what do the parents think?” question, we face similar challenges. How do we engage the parents to ask them some simple questions? We want answers quickly, and we want it to be easy for parents to share them. A survey seemed like a good idea at the time. In the past, it’s been a very effective way to gauge opinions. We should have known better.

We knew there was a possibility for this to go sideways. In cases like this, there is always a balance between security and ease of use. We wanted low friction, so people could share their opinions quickly and easily. That meant that safeguards to restrict the survey to one response from each family were less important. We could give them usernames and passwords. We could ask them to enter their child’s lunch code to submit the survey. We could send individual one-time-use links to each person. All of that is complicated and time consuming, and it reduces the likelihood that people will respond.

But this survey was about Covid, and if we’ve learned one thing in the last 18 months, it’s that people behave irrationally when it comes to Covid. The question for parents was this: should students be required to wear masks in school? We wanted opinions from the people most affected by this decision: the families to whom the rule would apply.

When we received more than 4,000 responses from a survey that was only sent to 3,600 people, we shut it down. Some people felt that their opinions should carry more weight than others, so they responded multiple times. Some responded hundreds of times. Others shared the survey on social media and asked all of their “friends” to express their opinions as well. We didn’t ask the Internet what it thought. We asked our parents. And a few parents invited the Internet to weigh in.

The people making this decision have some data now. They’ve learned that many of our parents are passionate and opinionated and divided and irrational when it comes to this issue. That’s somewhat less helpful than the data they were looking for.

So the threshold has been raised. We’re not likely to survey parents in the near future, and when we do, there will have to be barriers that make it harder to respond. District stakeholders will not be able to weigh in on time-sensitive issues, because we don’t have an agile way to get their opinions. The party needs a bouncer. May I see your invitation please?

I should have known better.