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School Climate Shouldn’t Be An Afterthought

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August 07, 2012 03:59 pm

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School climate and culture often seem like an afterthought in education policy discussions, a mushy diversion from the hard measures of achievement and graduation rates that really define student success. The truth of course is that it is impossible to divorce school climate from the harder measures. For this reason it was very heartening to read the recent Center for Education Policy (CEP) report, Special Reports on School Improvement Grants, written by Jennifer McMurrer, on how schools receiving School Improvement Grants (SIG) are focusing on improving school climate.

Although some people are skeptical of the impact that changes in school climate can have, research by the Johns Hopkins Everyone Graduates Center and others on middle schools highlights three different warning signs that signal if a student is likely to drop out: attendance, behavior, and course failure.  And, as you might imagine, research finds that these factors are inter-related. For example high levels of suspensions directly relate to chronic absenteeism and both can affect course failure.  In this way the overall school climate can have a direct impact on all three of these factors which correspondingly create the low academic achievement and graduation rate outcomes associated with low-performing schools.  Other research on achievement gaps and high school dropouts also shows that there is a direct relationship between these challenges and issues of school and community safety, attendance, and other factors related to school climate.

Beyond its overall effect, poor school climate is a problem that disproportionately affects schools that serve more low income students and students of color.  Data released recently by the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education highlights that students of color are much more likely to be referred to law enforcement by schools, more likely to be suspended, and subject to physical and mechanical restraint while in school.

These factors make the recent findings by the CEP all the more significant. All the schools in the CEP study highlighted steps to create a more positive school climate as an essential initial condition before implementing any other reforms.  In this way, a focus on school climate was a foundation for any other subsequent reform efforts.  Efforts to improve school climate highlighted in the applications included investments in positive behavioral support strategies, funding school social service workers, and taking steps to eliminate student bullying and harassment.  The SIG applications encourage these actions.  Under the description of the transformation model for example, schools “may implement approaches to improve school climate and discipline, such as implementing a system of positive behavioral supports or taking steps to eliminate bullying and student harassment.” The fact that schools are translating this option into a precursor for action highlights the foundational importance of school climate in improving overall student outcomes.

Whether these efforts will bare fruit and improve achievement, graduation rates, postsecondary enrollment rates, and other summative measures remains to be seen. The reforms are still in their nascent stage. The findings, however, do highlight that there are specific steps to improve school climate and federal policy can provide incentives for schools and districts to take these steps. In doing so, actions to improve school climate create a culture that provides a greater foundation for the rest of the school’s longer-term academic goals.  If teachers and students don’t have to invest their energy worrying about whether the environment they come to is safe or not, they can be much more empowered to move towards the college- and- career readiness goals we aspire to for the nation’s schools.

Ace Parsi is a policy and advocacy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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