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No doubt, it’s hard for students to learn in a school where classmates are constantly getting into fights and where bullying or disruptive, threatening behavior is common. Teachers who have to spend classroom time breaking up altercations can’t do as much teaching.  Academic researchers back that up. A 2013 study in Chicago found that violent crime on school grounds has a negative effect on test scores. The stress and the disruptions get in the way of learning.

One might reasonably assume that principals need to reduce violence and improve school culture before they can succeed in getting kids to learn more.

But a new California study upends this conventional wisdom and finds the opposite. Schools that reduced violence and improved school climate tended not to produce academic gains afterwards. Instead, the researchers found, schools that first raised academic performance usually got large reductions in school violence. School climate indicators, such as whether students feel safe, also improved in schools that first increased test scores.

“Who doesn’t want a child in a school that’s safe and without violence? Do you have to have those two things before you get an increase in academics? The answer in this study is unequivocally no,” said Ron Avi Astor, one of the authors and a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

“These were surprising results. It goes against what everyone thinks,” Astor added.

Astor, along with colleagues at USC and Bar Ilan University in Israel, sought to answer the question “What comes first: safer schools or academic performance gains?” In their study, published in April 2016 in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal, the researchers looked at student survey results on school climate and violence at more than 3,000 middle and high schools across California. On the surveys, for example, students were asked questions about whether they were gang members, have been involved in violent incidents or have used weapons. Those answers were compared with test scores at each school.  They had data for six years, from 2007 to 2013, and could see how gains in one time period led to improvements in another time period.

The researchers found, for example, that a school with improvements in school climate and violence in one time period tended not to see test score gains in a subsequent time period. “They’re almost zero,” Astor emphasized. However, schools that posted test score gains in one period were very likely to show climate and violence improvements in future periods. Astor said he found the same one-way pattern over each time period he studied, and for both middle and high schools. The research team also examined whether changes in student demographics at a school could be causing violence to go up or down, instead of the academic gains. But their conclusion — that academic gains preceded school safety and climate improvements — remained true.

That’s not to say that academic gains are the only thing you need to produce a safer school. Of course, other things matter too.  And not every school that raises test scores will become safer. But on average, a school that raises test scores is highly likely to reap the benefit of a better school climate. It would be a very good prediction.

This chicken-or-egg debate is important because a lot of money is spent on anti-violence and bullying programs and consultants at schools. This paper argues that school leaders won’t be successful if they focus on school culture and safety in isolation. Strong academics and teaching need to be part of the plan.

“The best violence prevention is a school that works very hard to improve academics,” suggested Astor. “The school climate and school bullying researchers should continue their work, but, for intervention strategies, if they tie in with the school reform movement on academics, they will get a bigger bang for their buck.”

It’s unclear from this research why academic gains produce safer schools. It’s possible that a renewed focus on academics keeps kids too busy to misbehave. Or perhaps better teaching and a more interesting curriculum keep students more motivated and less bored.

Astor and his colleagues have visited a few of the schools where academic gains led to improvements in school climate, and what they have noticed are principals who prioritize academics without neglecting emotional and behavioral issues.

“What we’ve seen in these school are remarkable principals. They put academics front and center, but they’re also addressing school climate and violence as part of that,” said Astor. “Simply teaching to the test will not get these results.”

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