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Don’t walk that line! Why schools need to create, and measure, positive climates

A change in priorities

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

Boys and girls participate in afternoon empowerment sessions called “Dare to be Queens” or “Dare to be Kings.”

A positive school climate boosts student achievement.

It includes a system of supportive and caring teachers, a safe learning environment, student connectedness and parental involvement.

Since conditions like these support the interests of a school’s major stakeholders, it is very important for them to know if they’re in a positive climate.

That’s why educators need to measure school climate, according to “Research Synthesis of the Associations Between Socioeconomic Background, Inequality, School Climate, and Academic Achievement,” a new study in Review of Educational Research, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

As researchers on positive school climate note, the “personality” of a school is an expression of how teachers, students, family members and community perceive the milieu.

In other words, a school doesn’t have to be mean to be good. Treating students with care and respect increases academic performance among students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, higher than if a school placed a singular single focus on academics.

Researchers for this study pulled evidence from multiple studies from around the world to understand the relationships between socioeconomic status, school climate and academic achievement to help academics and practitioners alike understand what a positive climate is and why ultimately it can boost academic achievement.

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They found that the research community defines positive school climate differently along an array of varied measures – just like practitioners. However, nurturing teachers, safety, student connectedness and parental engagement stuck out.

It’s important for educators to measure how members of a school community perceive its climate. And few districts and states incorporate climate assessments in their school improvement strategies.

The Research Synthesis study found that while the majority of the studies on climate focused on students, a proper accounting of the school’s personality requires taking in the views of all members of the school community.

Related: New Orleans’ uphill battle for more black and homegrown teachers

There is a “tendency to dismiss climate reports of teachers, school staff, and especially those of students’ parents and other family members,” the report states.

Our views on school climate and/or culture have changed alongside our beliefs of what the purposes of schools are.

When schooling was central to our democracy, as in the early 20th century, positive school climates reflected what it took to be a good citizen (at least for white males).

“Research Synthesis” analyzed studies since the year 2000. Since No Child Left Behind, it’s pretty clear that schools are expected to increase student learning particularly in discrete academic areas.

Coming out of the accountability era and into our new national education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, most people acknowledge that a singular focus on test scores limits our ability to lift students academically.

Related: How failing to get more Hispanics to college could drag down all Americans’ income

This research backs that up. But most also realize the need to know how students are doing academically through testing. The deal struck between test-driven reformers and community-driven reformers that hatched ESSA may actually get us to see the fullness of schools and the limitations of tests.

As a former school leader in a low-income district, it wasn’t uncommon for me to hear parents and teachers share what they believed necessary to create a positive climate to accelerate learning. The “need for structure” and the word “discipline” almost always emerged followed by “consequences.”

On its face, structure, discipline and consequences seem like solid building blocks for school culture. However, if you go beneath the surface of these beliefs and ask students how they received these practices, you’ll find a much harsher vision of schools than the nebulous terms convey.

In many schools, to have a structured school for low-income students is to have a quiet one.

Related: Why more black students are enrolling in historically black colleges

To have a disciplined school is to have culture of rule adherence that’s made visible by a militaristic uniformity.

Having students walk on white lines is the ultimate example. To teach consequences is to have high suspension and expulsion rates.

Many schools that possess these characteristics still show gains on standardized tests.

Based on the findings of this study, those schools can reach higher heights if all members, including students, perceive the climate to be positive. But that would require schools accommodating students’, teachers’ and parents’ perceptions.

Related: Baltimore summer school does the seemingly impossible — the kids actually want to be there

In the same district, I saw schools that seemingly sought a collective belief in a positive climate. In these schools, rigorous lessons were made fun. Independent and creative thinking was embraced.

As far as consequences, students learned the byproducts of love that comes from embracing depth over breadth in their lessons. That love engendered trust between school personnel and students who were allowed to move throughout the building (and God forbid make noise) without lines to direct them.

For many school leaders, students’ and parents’ perceptions are like dirty laundry. They repel against the fear those voices will be aired. However, if school leaders really want to maximize achievement, they have to open themselves up to the people they serve.

“The whole school climate literature has been pretty independent in the last 20-25 years of the academic discussion, but there has been a slow shift in connecting the two,” said Ron Avi Astor, one of the study’s authors.

Astor has found many schools that serve low-income families that beat the odds. In them, the social-emotional and climate plan was integrated with academics. Improving climate wasn’t done through a one-off program or through efforts independent of a school’s academic program.

“So rather than have a program for mathematics, a program for reading, a program for bullying … everything was wrapped up in a single philosophy,” said Astor. “I like to describe it as having more central air rather than window air.”

School leaders won’t have to air their dirty laundry if they get central air. We should be as rigorous about being supportive as we are about making kids smart.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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