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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

School Climate: Is It Fragmented, Piecemeal, and Counterproductively Competitive?

By Peter DeWitt — June 21, 2015 5 min read
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School climate is the plate that everything else sits on. Whether we flip, brand, increase teacher voice or student voice, throw out grades or whatever initiative we believe is important for the growth of our schools, school climate is at the foundation. Initiatives falter when school climate is hostile as opposed to inclusive.

As the co-chair of the National School Climate Council, I believe we need to spend more time developing positive school climates. Unfortunately we deal with so much outside noise from top-down mandates that we often put school climate on the backburner, and our students suffer. Many in the field of education are trying to push for more pro-social education.

Cohen, who is responding to the question below, defines pro-social education as,

Prosocial education is a term that more and more are using to refer to the array of overlapping instructional efforts that promote so-called "non-cognitive" aspects of learning: character education, social emotional learning, mental health promotion efforts and more. In fact, "cognitive" or intellectual learning is always, more or less, inter-connected with social, emotional and ethical aspects of learning and vice versa. There are important differences in these instructional traditions, but I have suggested that there are more similarities than differences. They are all focused on intentionally promoting the skills, knowledge and dispositions that provide the foundation for school -- and life -- success.

We need to make sure that all marginalized populations have a voice in our school, but it seems that school climate is something we talk about but never know how to make it more inclusive and positive. In an effort to help, I went to 4 members with a question, two of whom I will share now and two I will share in a week, of the National School Climate Council who are doing important work at the building, state and national level.

The question:

The vast majority of school leaders understand the importance of school climate, but there seems to be an issue creating inclusive and positive climates in schools. What do you believe are the challenges to helping schools to create safe, supportive, engaging and healthy climates for learning?

Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D. - President of the National School Climate Center

My understanding is that there are two major challenges that are undermining school leaders ability to create even safer, more supportive, engaging and healthy climates for learning that promote school - and life - success.

Current federal and state educational policy and accountability systems: Policy shapes practice. Today educational policy goals largely focus on student cognitive learning. Student cognitive learning is what is measured and is what counts. Educational accountability systems are also only focused on annual results. In other words, current policy does not recognize and support the following foundational aspects of an effective school climate improvement process: Students, parents/guardians, school personal and even community members learning and working together to foster transformational school improvement; pro-social instruction and a continuous process of learning and development.

Educator beliefs, needs and wants: Our center recently completed a national survey of over 840 building and district leaders about school climate reform. Over 90% reported that they believed that school climate improvement is very important. But, on the other hand, the majority gave voice to needing and wanting clarity and guidelines about the following essential topics:

  • How to best define school climate (e.g. how is it similar and different from three tiered behavioral systems like PBIS?)
  • Policy guidelines
  • How to learn about and select school climate surveys as well as Readiness, Process and Community metrics?
  • Where to find school climate improvement “road maps” that detail tasks and challenges that school leaders need to consider?
  • And, how to support emerging and established leaders learning more about school climate reform and how to integrate this into current schoolwide, instructional and/or relational improvement goals.

Our Center - alone and with many others -- is working to address both of these challenges. We are very focused on supporting district and state level policy reform. And, we have a growing body of research-based information, guidelines and tools that support the “whole village” supporting the “whole” child.

Howard Adelman, Ph.D. & his Co-Director Linda Taylor, Ph.D. answered this one together. Adelman and Taylor are UCLA Professors and Co-directors of the School Mental Health Project & National Center for Mental Health in Schools.

We all want to improve school climate. The question is how to make it happen. School climate and fundamental changes in school culture are phenomena that emerge from the ongoing reciprocal transactions among involved stakeholders. Critical in all this are how students and staff address the daily with multiple, interrelated problems arising from a host of neighborhood, family, schooling, peer, and personal factors.

With these in mind, a Carnegie task force on education stressed that: While school systems are not responsible for meeting every need of their students, when the need directly affects learning, the school must meet the challenge. Meeting the challenge requires not only expanding the focus on pro-social education, but transforming student and learning supports.

School leaders are well aware of major barriers to learning and teaching and re-engaging disconnected students. Nevertheless, schools tend to address such matters in superficial ways. The trend is to keep tweaking current marginalized policies and practices rather than facing‑up to major systemic transformation.

For example, analyses of existing efforts to address barriers to learning and teaching yields a consistent picture of fragmented, piecemeal, and counterproductively competitive activity. When changes are made, they are generated in an ad-hoc and unsystematic manner as a variety of advocates invariably compete with each other for the sparse resources in most schools.

The widespread competition for existing resources works against enhancing a positive school climate. From this perspective, a major challenge ahead in improving school climate involves addressing four fundamental and interrelated system development problems. These are:

  • Expanding the policy framework for school improvement to fully integrate, as primary and essential, a component for addressing barriers to learning and teaching.
  • Reframing student and learning support interventions to create a unified and comprehensive system of learning supports in classrooms and school-wide.
  • Reworking the operational infrastructure to ensure effective daily implementation and ongoing development of a unified and comprehensive system for addressing barriers to learning and teaching.
  • Enhancing approaches for systemic change in ways that ensure effective implementation, replication to scale, and sustainability.

Along with educating students on standards, making sure students get balanced nutritional meals, meeting mandates and accountability measures, as well as making sure teachers have the proper resources to educate students, schools continue to be tasked with an enormous responsibility. As Adelman & Taylor said in the Carnegie task force statement, “While school systems are not responsible for meeting every need of their students, when the need directly affects learning, the school must meet the challenge.”

It seems to start with a plate of school climate with a layer of pro-social education, and it needs to be more holistic and less fragmented.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.