Improving Student Perceptions in Baltimore


The challenge:

The challenge: For decades, Baltimore County Public Schools struggled with low achievement, including a dip between elementary and middle school. To improve student performance and overhaul middle-school programs, district leaders wanted to find out how they could improve students’ experiences.


The intervention:

SDP Fellow Kelly Shields led a team that surveyed 18,000 middle-school students about their opinions and hopes for their schools and teachers, a program called the Middle School Student Interest Survey.


The impact:

Shields’ analysis found that students were more likely to say they worked hard at school than were interested in it, and that students who reported working hard were more likely to have better grades. Student survey responses inspired the district to commit to specific new programs to motivate and challenge students, like adding a new sport every year and seek out grant funding to add more Algebra classes for students in grade 8.

The Challenge:

Improving Outcomes from K-12, With a Focus on 6-8

For decades, Baltimore County Public Schools has struggled with low academic achievement and high dropout rates. As part of ongoing efforts to improve, district leaders focused on overhauling middle-school programs throughout the county. By making the transition years of middle school more engaging and rigorous, their thinking went, they could connect those high expectations and elevate performance at both elementary and high schools as well.

As part of that effort, officials decided to poll students in grades 6, 7, and 8 on their perceptions of their schools and use their opinions to inform new middle-school programs. Research had shown that surveys not only provide insights for adults, but also promote reflection and responsibility for students. 

The Intervention:

Finding Out What Students Really Think

SDP Fellow Kelly Shields led a fast-moving team at Baltimore County Public Schools to quickly develop, administer, and analyze surveys for all 22,000 students in grades 6, 7, and 8. The team assembled a two-page survey of research-backed questions to be distributed at 36 schools during a five-day window at the end of the year. She had just a few weeks to develop the survey and train and support school leaders to ensure the surveys were administered in a secure and reliable way.

To capture the most telling perceptions, Shields included questions about what sort of magnet and sports programs students planned to join or wished their school would offer. The survey also asked a dozen questions about students’ level of effort, interest, and enjoyment at school, how much homework they did, and whether they felt their teachers were friendly, respectful, encouraging, and caring.

In all, the SDP fellow and her team received 17,978 responses from 34 schools, with a median school participation rate of 79.5 percent. Because the surveys were given at the very end of the school year, after students in grade 8 had participated in moving-up ceremonies, many older students were absent and did not complete the surveys. That finding alone inspired school administrators to investigate attendance policies.

The Impact:

Lessons Learned

The SDP fellow found that overall, students’ perceptions of their effort and enjoyment of school were about the same in each grade, and that students with lower GPAs reported favorable relationships with their teachers about as much as students with higher GPAs did. However, students with higher GPAs were also more likely to say they worked hard at school.

Shields’ analysis also revealed ways that schools could appeal to students more: students expressed broad interest in magnet programs, for example. That finding led district officials to seek out grant funding to expand access to Algebra class for students in grade 8, a prerequisite for many science-themed magnet programs.

Because the surveys required students to enter their personal identification number, Shields and her team could analyze their responses by grade level, gender, race, economic status, and GPA. She found differences in the types of magnet programs students favored based on their gender, with boys preferring science themes and girls more likely to express interest in performing or visual arts. Both boys and girls were interested in sports like basketball, soccer, and track and field. In response, the district committed to adding a new sport every year. Shields also found that at-school programs might be particularly beneficial to low-income students, who expressed higher levels of interest in them.

SDP Resources:

Read Kelly Shield's full SDP capstone report here.