Initial Research Observations Post COVID at Christian Schools

Paul NealThe CACE Roundtable1 Comment

Now that we appear to be on the downward slope of a 2 1/2 year pandemic, it is interesting to consider the impact it has had on Christian schools. While the long-term effects on education are already being discussed and will likely be researched for some time, there are some interesting initial trends emerging in the research that Charter Oak and CACE have been conducting with Christian schools over the course of the pandemic.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, all institutions assessed and pivoted as best they could in a changing and unpredictable environment. In the spring of 2020, Christian schools did their best to continue delivering Christian education in challenging conditions. Comparatively, many public schools in the same time frame remained closed and, in many cases, had a more difficult time pivoting to alternative approaches.

During that first spring semester and into the following school year, research at schools seemed to show a great appreciation on the part of parents for the way many Christian schools responded. Parent satisfaction scores remained strong and, in many cases, saw an uptick. Additionally, enrollment activity seemed to support the idea that audiences were glad to have the options provided by Christian schools, often teaching and learning in person and responding to pandemic challenges with alternative strategies.

Meeting with groups of school leaders and hearing about the positive parent responses, I recall thinking that this increased level of satisfaction may not last as consumers tend to exhibit the same behavior following any other type of market disruptions. Good will rarely lasts. However, the satisfaction seemed to hold, and generally positive results have been experienced by Christian schools through this current semester. (Cultural and social dissension taking place seems to be another factor contributing to trends we are observing in the Christian school market, and it will be interesting to see what lasting effect those have as well.)

Before reviewing more recent data, let me make a note about marketing research. Marketing research is a science. But it does have limitations compared to other forms of more pure research. The limitations are often related to the practical realities in both paying for and conducting marketing research. There is almost no limit to how marketing research could be improved by using larger samples, more precise methodologies, and time needed for verification and authentication. But realities often limit these elements due to time constraints, finances, and logistics.

These limitations of marketing research should not keep us from conducting the best possible research to answer an important business question. This final point is also an important differentiator between marketing research and other forms of pure research. Marketing research is conducted in order to answer a business question, not conducted out of curiosity or to understand the big picture; the point is to impact the marketing potential of an organization. Consequently, marketing research often has lower thresholds of expectations when it comes to scientific rigor.

Marketing research also has an art component in the analysis and implementation. Knowing what to do with the research requires experience, insight, and a willingness to look beyond the research, bringing other factors into the mix to develop a strategy. When it comes to artful analysis around pandemic research, researchers are challenged, having no similar situation from which they can draw experience or expertise. So, when one says that our best guess about the research leads us to certain preliminary conclusions, don’t miss the words “guess” or “preliminary.” But the conclusions are interesting, nonetheless.

Two and a half years in, there are additional interesting trends emerging from the most recent satisfaction data. Whereas satisfaction with Christian schools remains generally strong, there seem to be new negative pandemic impacts on various groups typically studied in satisfaction research at Christian schools. Trends among parents, students, and staff seem to be connected with one another and to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To summarize these initial observations, it seems to be observable that parents are emotionally down, students are different, and staff are done. Let me explain. 

There seems to be a general decrease in parent satisfaction that isn’t related to school performance. The best way to describe this observation is that parents seem less positive in general. Other societal observations about parents of school-age children seem to support this initial conclusion. Similarly, in the case of Christian school parents, we are observing them to be less optimistic and positive. Evidenced in school satisfaction scores taking a slight dip, the posture doesn’t seem to correlate with any performance problems by the schools during this same timeframe. Instead, it seems to be more related to the parent population having been impacted by the pandemic itself. They are less positive in general, and the school satisfaction research is likely only one part of an overall less positive parent population.

Students have changed, too. Throughout the pandemic, students experienced loss of a connectedness as well as structure. As schools return to a sense of normalcy, students find themselves in a newly unfamiliar, or at least forgotten, situation. They could be characterized as having been changed for the worse based on certain behavioral and disciplinary needs. Research indicates that students are reporting new levels of dissatisfaction with elements at the school around organization, structure, and expectations on behavior. This trend will be interesting to observe going forward to see if it is anomalous or an indicator of a more permanent or long-term change. The behavior issues were likely created by nearly two years of less oversight, accountability, and structure. Yet to be further studied is the developmental impact, primarily at the elementary level.

Finally, with respect to faculty in particular (but staff in general), there are indicators that Christian school employees may be prime examples of the great resignation so widely discussed in broader circles. Obviously, this trend may be related to both of the previous group findings and that many staff are also parents who have experienced both the difficulties of parenting through the pandemic and dealing firsthand with a changing student population. This finding correlates with broader employee satisfaction research showing that employees were negatively impacted by the pandemic. It will be interesting if the commitment to mission and shared faith actually mitigates this inclination more so than will be evidenced in other non-Christian school settings.

How do these findings compare to your own observations? I’d be interested in your thoughts on how the pandemic has affected your parents, your students, and your staff.

Author

  • Paul T. Neal (paul.neal@cace.) is Sr. Vice President for Marketing and Enrollment at Cairn University and co-founder of Charter Oak Research where he serves as Principal and Chief Research Officer. Charter Oak Research is a marketing research and consulting firm focused on resourcing and supporting Christian schools and colleges, other Christian ministries and for profit organizations. Charter Oak brings marketing research to bear on the strategy and tactics of enrollment and advancement needs of clients to improve brand awareness, perception and sustainability. Paul has presented and been published on: the use of normative data in analysis, respondent motives, trends in education and online communities and respondent quality. Prior to founding Charter Oak Research, Paul was a Principal at Olson Research Group for 15 years as well as serving as the Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University responsible for qualitative research on political culture and U.S. Public Policy. Paul has served as an adjunct faculty member at several Philadelphia area universities. Paul is a graduate of Eastern (B.A.) and Villanova (M.A.) Universities and attended Temple University for further graduate study.

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