Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

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: What Is the Road Map to Success?

By Peter DeWitt — June 23, 2015 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

When it comes to education we have definitely seen the harmful effects of misguided policies and mandates. It’s not always the fault of the policy because sometimes the issue lies with the leaders enforcing the policy. As a former school principal, depending on the policy or mandate, I may have enforced it in a very different way than my administrative colleagues.

Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with policies. Those that were coming top-down around standardized testing and tying those tests to 50% of a teacher and principal’s evaluation are harmful and I cannot support. Those that were meant to safeguard students from bullying and harassment I can very much support. So, when organizations or policymakers call for policies to be established in schools, it seems to depend on the school and leader as to how they become enforced.

One area where policies seem to be complicated is school climate.

School climate is defined as,

The quality and character of school life. School climate is based on patterns of students', parents' and school personnel's experience of school life and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures" (NSCC).

In a recent post, Jonathan Cohen, President of the National School Climate Center (NSCC), suggested that changes in school climate would only take place if there were changes to, Current federal and state educational policy and accountability systems: Policy shapes practice. Today educational policy goals largely focus on student cognitive learning.”

John Bennett, Professor Emeritus at the University of Connecticut posted a comment stating,

I see top down policy changes called for, acknowledged competitive and fragmented efforts, and school centered efforts. And I don't see any mention of the impact of politics. Both the emphasis politically on the learning issues and the huge divide in the social/emotional points politically are in my thinking the elephant in the room!!!"

School Climate Policies need to be bottom up as well as being top down. And, NSCC’s road map and metrics do explicitly recognize and support a bottom up/student-parent/guardians- school personnel and community member/leader collaborative effort.

My question is...can we have both?

For full disclosure I do wish that we didn’t have to have policies, especially in the area of school climate. It should be one of those areas that all leaders and teachers want to make sure that they help establish an inclusive and positive school climate. But the truth is they don’t. And sometimes a policy is the only way a parent can fight against a wrong doing in school.

A policy is also a way that an administrator can support a decision that parents may not agree with, like safeguarding students regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression. Cohen says, “That even if everyone did want to further school climate improvement, we do need school climate improvement guidelines and this, in part, is what policy is all about: using research findings to shape practice/behavior.”

Is it possible for us to have policies to make sure they are on the radar of schools? Cohen wrote about a road map in the last blog, and I began getting questions through social media about what that road map may look like.

Jonathan Cohen adds,

When we are going on a 'journey' - be it a long hike or sailing voyage and certainly a school improvement process - it is naturally helpful to have a road map: informational about where are we going? Information about what to consider bringing with us? what are important bench marks or a compass of sorts? Rather than telling school leaders what to do, school improvement road maps should - optimally - suggest what to consider and focus on in ways that are research based. In fact, there are a number of prosocial road maps. Character.org (formerly, the Character education Partnership) has a road map that is based on the 11 Principles of Effective Character Education. This set of school wide and instructional goals is one way that school leaders can compare and contrast their efforts with these research based principles. And, CASEL has an SEL informed road map. The National School Climate Center has another, even more detailed and I think helpful road map: The School Climate Improvement Road Map. This road map supports the National School Climate council's understanding of an effective school climate improvement process: an intentional, strategic, collaborative, data driven, transparent and democratically informed process that supports students, parents/guardians, school personnel and even community members learning and working together to create a climate for learning that supports school - and life - success. Specifically, the NSCC's road map is shaped by a series of research based tasks and challenges that characterize and shape an effective planning, evaluation, action planning, implementation and beginning anew states in the continual process of school improvement.

In the End

All the tasks and challenges outlined are important. But each principal can and needs to delineate what strategic goals they believe are most important to them, which takes in the collective work of all stakeholders, which John Bennett often writes about. Together, they need to decide where their road will take them.

Connect with Peter on Twitter

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Tristan Martin.

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.