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How Students Experience Their Schools

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This class is like a family." "Kids don't make fun of you in this school when you don't know something." "My teacher really cares about me."

Few people need to be convinced of the significance of comments like these. But in all the recent talk and activity regarding educational reform, almost nobody has been paying serious attention to how students experience their classrooms and schools. Millions of dollars are spent to survey adult attitudes toward school, but with a few notable exceptions, such as the terrific "Voices From the Inside" report from the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif., no one seems to care much what school is like for kids.

Mostly, we treat students like the proverbial black box. We worry about what's going into them in the way of curriculum, standards, and incentives, and we worry even more about what comes out, that is, how they score and perform. But we virtually ignore their thoughts and feelings about school.

That's a mistake. We have compelling evidence showing that students' experience of school shapes their attitudes and behavior, which in turn determine whether the school environment will be conducive to learning. Students' experience of school also presages whether they will develop personal commitments to the ideals and core values that over time will serve them (and society) well.

There's a lot to be gained by asking students: "Do you feel safe and respected at school? Are you both challenged and supported? Do you see connections between what you are learning and your life outside of school? Do you buy in to your school's goals and values, as stated and as actually lived out?"

At my organization, the Developmental Studies Center in Oakland, Calif., we place great stock in tracking one particular aspect of students' experience of the school and classroom--as a "caring community of learners." Here "community" does not refer to a surrounding geographic area. Rather, it refers to whether students regard themselves as valued, contributing members of a classroom or school that is committed to everyone's learning and growth--intellectual, ethical, social, and emotional.

We use a questionnaire to measure "sense of community" in upper-elementary classrooms. One set of questions assesses "classroom supportiveness" with 10 statements such as "When someone in my class does well, everyone in the class feels good" and "Students in my class treat each other with respect." Students rate the extent of their agreement or disagreement with each statement.

The second subscale assesses "student participation and influence"--whether students feel they have a say in planning, decisionmaking, and problem-solving. Sample items include "Students have a say in deciding what goes on" and "In my class the teacher and students decide together what the rules will be."

The schools we work with conduct annual surveys of students from the 3rd or 4th grade up. Initially, very few schools score well on the "sense of community" scale. Most elementary school students do not experience a strong sense of belonging or influence in their classrooms.

The initial picture is even more bleak for students from low-income families. They generally report a lower sense of community than do more-affluent children. This finding fits with many observers' reports that schools serving poor children tend to be more regimented, punitive, and skill-and-drill than other schools.

But in the rare school in a low-income neighborhood that does engender a sense of community that is effectively helping students feel that they belong and have influence, the benefits are many. For example, students in such schools report enjoying their classes more, are more task-oriented, and have higher educational expectations than do children in other low-income areas. Engendering a strong sense of community may help level the playing field for poor children.

Engendering a strong sense of community may help level the playing field for poor children.

Ours is not the only research showing the importance of experiencing school as a community. Anthony Bryk and his colleagues at the University of Chicago have shown that conditions which promote a sense of community also benefit high school students--for example, increasing their academic achievement and decreasing their involvement in problem behavior. A study published last fall in the Journal of the American Medical Association links adolescents' "connectedness" with school (their sense of belonging or bonding) to the prevention of emotional distress, suicidal tendencies, violence, sexual activity, and cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use. The researchers conclude: "Connectedness with school is a ... protective factor in the lives of young people." Finally, Catherine Lewis' seminal studies of Japanese elementary schools, described in her book Educating Hearts and Minds, document a pervasive emphasis on children's belonging and influence, as a route to character development and academic achievement.

We ought to monitor students' sense of community systematically. Despite the massive amounts being invested in student assessment these days, we fail to monitor sense of community, connection to school, trust in teachers, and other perceptions that are easily measured and have proven links to important outcomes.

Does the answer to improving our schools lie in enhancing students' sense of community or other dimensions of their experience of school? Of course not. Sense of community is no more a silver bullet than are high academic standards, authentic assessment of student outcomes, or ongoing professional development for teachers. But like these other priorities, a focus on students' experience in school is surely a key element of the educational reform equation. And it is currently the most neglected element of all.


Eric Schaps is the president of the Developmental Studies Center in Oakland, Calif., which works with schools and educators nationwide to form communities of learners that foster the development of children.

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