By Linda Inlay, retired principal of The River School, a National School of Character
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 given school climate credibility as 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 on the U.S. Department of Education releasing 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 implementation to address particular concerns revealed by the survey will less likely produce long-standing results. A school climate survey and its recommendations for interventions that is based on more of an “inside out” approach will be more effective if it encourages genuine responsibility and self-discipline and creates a context where basic needs, like the need for caring relationships and the need for self or identity, are met to support intrinsic sources of motivation. Otherwise, like so many other educational initiatives, school climate will be another thing to check off the list, rather than being a systemic, deeply rooted effort to improve school climate.
Mindsets and Modeling of the Hidden or Implicit Curriculum
From my 42 years of being an educator and the last 18 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 many years ago, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, students have great “crap” detectors. This means then 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 account for why the same social emotional programs work in some schools and don’t in others.
There are 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 students feel because their schools encourage it. These kinds of questions reflect an adult mindset that looks at students as not “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 carefully evaluate the school climate surveys available for the aforementioned considerations. Personally, 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 researcher and has a sound theoretical framework that supports long term change. The underlying assumptions of this system of changing a school’s climate begins with 1) the change in mindsets of the individuals first and 2) a collective vision of the school guided by an administrator who “walks the talk” with students and with teachers for school wide buy in.
While looking at school climate is a big step in the right direction, 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.