Those of us who have been talking for years about the importance of school culture or school climate and how it can improve student achievement, are heartened by the inclusion of this topic in the national conversation about school improvement. ESSA’s requirement for a non-cognitive measure in assessments has encouraged school climate to be a serious focus of consideration.
The Research Alliance for New York City Schools recently shared its findings of the “robust relationships” between school climate, teacher retention, and student achievement. And Education Week published a blog by the U.S. Department of Education who released a free, web-based survey that schools can use to track the effectiveness of school climate efforts and resources on how to best improve learning environments for students.
I’d like to offer in this posting some considerations before deciding on the school climate survey for your school or district.
Understanding what motivates students and adults
One of the challenges mentioned in the Research Alliance policy brief is how schools will use the data gleaned from a school climate survey and the “how” relates to the quality of the survey itself. If the survey is not grounded in understanding what drives intrinsic motivation of students and teachers, then the interventions to address particular concerns revealed by the survey will less likely produce long-standing results. A school climate survey and its recommendations for interventions will be more effective in shifting climate if it is based on more of an “inside out” approach. This approach should encourage genuine individual responsibility and self-discipline and create a context where basic needs, like the need for caring relationships and the need for sense of self or identity, are met for students and teachers alike to support intrinsic sources of motivation. Otherwise, like so many other educational initiatives, school climate will be another thing to check off the ESSA list, rather than being a systemic, deeply rooted effort to improve school climate.
Mindsets and Modeling of the Hidden or Implicit Curriculum of School Climates
From my forty-two years of being an educator and the last eighteen as principal of a middle school, I have learned that students know when teachers or administrators “don’t walk the talk.” As Neil Postman said in his book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity,many years ago, students have great “crap” detectors. This means when teachers are teaching about respect or self-awareness or resiliency or growth mindset; if they are not “being” or modeling these qualities, students are able to spot the lack of authenticity. School climate interventions are not just about techniques, but also about the modeling by the adults of the accompanying mindsets while teaching, for example, the techniques of restorative justice or PBIS. These mindsets are a significant element in the hidden or implicit curriculum of the school climate. Very little intention and attention is spent in teacher or administrator preparation programs or in professional development to become aware of unconscious mindsets that may not support the espoused mission and values of a school. The quality of mindsets may account for why the same social emotional programs work in some schools and don’t in others.
Some school climate surveys don’t include student surveys. I believe this is a huge omission. Especially in middle and high school, students want to be taken seriously and they want to be heard. Much of what happens to students is being “done to them” by adults who make most of the decisions. When a school climate survey takes the students’ opinions into consideration, important data is gleaned from the schools’ “clients.”
The Research Alliance recommended two school climate surveys: one had no student survey included and the other’s student survey was limited in the data that would help schools support students’ intrinsic motivation. For example, missing were questions like how much do students have trusting relationships with their teachers, or how well do faculty listen to students, or how empowered do students feel because their schools encourage their voice. These kinds of questions reflect an adult mindset that looks at students not as “objects” to whom the newest educational initiative is imposed, but as important partners co-creating a climate that nurtures their needs to build a stronger internal capacity to succeed.
I caution schools to evaluate carefully the available school climate surveys for the aforementioned considerations. In my search for a climate assessment to use with my nonprofit, I have found one I would recommend:
The School Climate Assessment System and Surveys from the Alliance for the Study of School Climate at California State University of Los Angeles is rated the best of the school climate surveys by an independent study and has a sound theoretical framework that supports long term change. Their system and survey are built on a systems approach that require the following for a healthy school climate:
1/ a collective vision and shared values held and nurtured by a committed administrator who “walks the talk.”
2/ an understanding of and commitment to shifting staff mindsets with the implementation of strategies that build trust, empowerment, and engagement.
While considering school climate is a big step in the right direction of school improvement, it behooves administrators to look carefully at the quality of the school climate survey in order to effectively shift the climate and culture in their schools so it truly lives in the administrators, faculty, and students.