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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

Should We Measure School Climate?

By Peter DeWitt — December 01, 2013 3 min read
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How do school leaders, teachers and staff focus on the whole child when they are concerned about scores? How do educators weed through what is important to the daily lives of students, as well as provide them with what they need to be successful outside of the school walls? Data has become the new 4 letter word that teachers hate to hear, but that may not be the data’s fault.

Jonathan Cohen, the Director of the National School Climate Center (NSCC) has long said that “Data should be used as a flashlight and not as a hammer.” Unfortunately, in too many states (and too many schools) data is being used to hammer teachers and school leaders. After a few years of increased accountability, is it possible for educators to find a happy medium where data is concerned?

One of the byproducts of accountability and the Common Core Implementation, especially with the use of data, is what happens to the school climate when the focus is on numbers instead of effective instructional practices and school safety. While school culture may focus on the values, goals, attitudes and practices of a group, school climate is something different but it’s equally as important.

According to NSCC, “School climate refers to 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.”

Out of all of the areas that schools are charged to “measure” school climate may be one of the most important. We all want students to be engaged in the school environment, and school climate assessments will help gauge where we are and what we need to work on. I understand that schools are pretty saturated with assessments, but now more than ever, we need to understand how our students, teachers, staff and parents are feeling about their climate.

Are they safe? Do they feel valued? Yes, I understand that critics think that we deal with children with “kid gloves” but the truth is the more students feel valued the better they do in life.

Too many students are at risk of being defined by a number and school climate is one of those areas that we should want to assess. We need to understand whether the school climate feels safe or whether it really is safe and nurturing for all students. When all is said and done, academics are important but so is social-emotional learning.

School Climate Assessments

Many schools feel overly assessed but the positive aspect of school climate assessments it that it offers schools data that they can use. Too often high stakes testing doesn’t offer schools any data and the data schools do get often revolve around one type of learning. School climate is much larger than that and helps schools have a more holistic or whole child view.

According to the NSCCthe National School Climate Council and NSCC suggest that there are four major areas that school climate assessment needs to include: Safety, Relationships, Teaching and Learning and the external environment.”

The following are the subscales of each of the four indicators, which is referred to as The 12 Dimensions of School Climate Measured:

In the End

Sometimes as a school leader I feel like a “plate spinner.” Plate spinners are those people who have 5 or 6 plates lined up individually on long sticks and they are spinning one after another. As soon as one plate is fully spinning...another one looks as though it is going to fall to the floor, breaking into pieces. Being a teacher or school leader feels like that some days.

We have a lot on our plates, but school climate needs to be the plate that everything else sits on. It’s just that important. School climate assessments can help a whole school community understand where they are doing well and what they can do better. Many times we don’t know what we don’t know and school climate assessments can help address that. In addition, the information that comes out of the school climate assessment helps provide next steps for leaders and staff.

School climate can easily be addressed through a principal’s advisory council (PAC) or stakeholder group structure in the building. An organization like the National School Climate Center can help provide the important resources schools need so school leaders and staff do not feel as though they have to reinvent the wheel.

Peter is the co-chair of the National School Climate Council, which is a volunteer position. Connect with him on Twitter.

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.