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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

The Issue of School Climate: A Conversation with Jonathan Cohen

By Peter DeWitt — November 08, 2011 10 min read
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“Educators are now used to data being used as a hammer rather than a flashlight.” Jonathan Cohen

On Saturday morning I went out to breakfast at a small café near my home in Albany, NY. When I was sitting at the high top table waiting for my order, I overheard two older men talking about bullying. They were probably in their late sixties or early seventies.

One of the guys was talking about a show that he saw that focused on bullying. He said that there was a teenage boy who was small in stature and he spoke to the host about all of the bullying he had endured over the first year of high school. The gentleman telling the story said, “What’s wrong with schools that this is allowed to happen?”

Bullying is very complicated and there are numerous reasons why it happens (We’re all Responsible for Bullying) and just as many reasons why it will never end and it all ties into social and emotional health. From a school leadership perspective, one of our most important jobs is to create a safe and engaging climate for our students, staff and parents.

One leading organization in the area of school climate is the National School Climate Center (NSCC) which was formerly known as the Center for Social and Emotional Education (CSEE). The following is an interview with one of NSCC’s founders, Dr. Jonathan Cohen.

Interview with Dr. Jonathan Cohen
PD: What is the National School Climate Center?
JC: The National School Climate Center (NSCC) is the world’s leading school climate improvement organization. We work with schools, districts, State Departments of Education, foreign educational ministries and the UN Children’s Fund to support students, parents/guardians, school personnel and community members learning and working together to promote even safer, more supportive, engaging and helpfully challenging schools that foster school - and life - success. Our vision is that all children will develop the essential social, emotional, civic and intellectual skills to become healthy and productive citizens. Our mission is to understand, assess and improve the climate for learning in schools to help children realize their fullest potential as individuals and as engaged members of society.

PD: How do you assist schools?
JC - The National School Climate Center, with the help of a number of educational and mental health professionals, as well as an extraordinary Board of Trustees and a National School Climate Council has developed policies, school climate measurement systems and improvement strategies and programs that support school leaders preventing drop outs, reducing violence, improving student/teacher interactions, improving the classroom and school building conditions and positive youth development.

PD - What kinds of policies?
JC - In partnership with the National School Climate Council, we have developed National School Climate Standards (//www.schoolclimate.org/climate/standards.php).
These standards are benchmarks that promote effective teaching, learning and comprehensive school improvement. The five standards support each school community addressing three essential questions: (1) What is our vision for an ideal school? Or, when our students, sons and daughters graduate, what are the skills, knowledge and dispositions that we most want our students to know and embody? (2) Given this shared vision, what are the rules and policies that we need to support it? And, (3) given this vision, rules and polices, what are the instructional and school-wide improvement practices that our school needs to focus on to insure that - truly - no children will be left behind? A number of States are now in the process of adopting or adapting these standards.

PD - what is involved with measuring school climate?
JC - We suggest that schools initially use a reliable and valid survey (that can be completed in under 20 minutes) to poll students, parents/guardians, school personnel and ideally, community members about the quality and character of school life. School climate measurements assess four major areas: safety; relationships; teaching and learning; and, the institutional environment.

The Comprehensive School Climate Inventory (CSCI) that our Center has developed over the last ten years is an example of a scientifically sound survey. The CSCI includes a community scale that supports middle and high school students being leaders learning about what community members feel and to what extent they are willing to actively support the school’s improvement plans. And, the CSCI is yoked to a series of web-based portals and resources that support effective administration as well as guidelines to support school communities understanding how to use this data in helpful ways.

School climate measurement can be used as an invaluable social, emotional and civic accountability measure. It can also be used to foster engagement: students, parents/guardians, school personnel and community members learning together about the school strengths and needs and creating a plan - together - to reduce bully/victim/bystander behavior and/or to make learning and teaching more engaging for students and/or whatever goal emerged from the school climate assessment process.

PD - So, is school climate measurement the first step in your work with schools?
JC - School climate improvement is a continuous process of planning, assessment, understanding the school climate finding and action planning, implementation the (instructional and/or systemically informed) action plans; and, beginning the cycle anew.

We have developed an implementation strategy to support schools furthering an effective school climate improvement process. For example, we always support schools planning and preparing for the actual school climate measurement process. Building on the work of James Comer, Tony Bryk, Michael Fullan and many others, we know that it is essential that school leaders take steps to engage all members of the community, and promote professional learning communities that foster more trusting and collaborative problem solving abilities and inclinations amongst the professional staff before measurement.

PD - What else characterizes your implementation strategy?
JC - Our implementation strategies is characterized by a series of suggested roles and responsibilities, formative assessments that support school leaders considering “where are we now?”’ and what are “possible next steps"; collaboratively developed plans to build capacity from “day one” of our work together through an on-line School Climate Resource Center (//scrc.schoolclimate.org/) as well as face-to-face professional developing; and, ongoing action research/professional learning communities.

PD - What are the most common school climate findings that your Center has discovered?
JC - In our work with thousands of schools across America, the single most common findings is that the adults - school personal and parents/guardians - believe that safety is a “mild” to “moderately severe” issue for students. But, students almost always rate this a “severe” problem. The second and third most common findings are that (i) everyone in the community believes that disrespect for diversity is a major problem; and, (ii) educators often report that they believe that they are doing a very good job being intentional and helpful social, emotional and civic teachers. But, parents and students often rate learning in these critical areas as not being intentional and/or helpful.

PD - When you say that safety is a common problem, do you mean bullying?
JC - Yes, bully-victim-bystander behavior is a national epidemic. IN fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that bullying is a national health problem. However, it is important to appreciate that bullying is not simply an individual act of one person (or group) being mean and cruel to another person (or group). Acting in mean, cruel and/or bullying ways is also always a social act: there are virtually always witnesses who act as (active or passive) bystanders or what we call Upstanders: students or adults in act in socially responsible ways.

PD - Do you work with schools to prevent bullying?
JC - Yes. As safety is so often the most important school climate findings, we are often asked to support schools preventing bullying and promoting Upstander behavior.

Too often schools and/or states believe that if we punish the bully and/or institute a new bully prevention curriculum that this will actually be helpful. Our recent national scan of bully prevention laws and educational policies (//www.schoolclimate.org/climate/database.php) shows that too many laws/polices are still focused on identifying and punishing the bully. This does not help.

Effective bully prevention efforts are -- necessary - a long term, comprehensive efforts that needs to be led by the principal and engage all members of the school community to both prevent mean, cruel and bullying behaviors as well as promote social responsibility. We have developed comprehensive school climate improvement strategies that do just this (//www.schoolclimate.org/climate/toolkit.php). Engaging students to be leaders in both raising awareness about bully-victim-bystander behavior and transforming the culture of the school from a ‘bystander culture’ to a community of Upstanders is one of many important helpful strategies. We have just released the (free) Upstander Alliance Tool Kit to promote student engagement, leadership and service learning in this area: http://www.schoolclimate.org/bullybust/upstander.

PD - Do you think that there is growing interest in school climate.
JC - Yes. This is due to a growing body of empirical research shows positive school climate is associated with and/or predictive of increased academic achievement and student learning, positive youth development, effective risk prevention/health promotion, decreased student dropout rates and increased teacher retention rates. As a result of these findings, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends school climate reform as a data driven strategy that promotes healthy relationships, school connectedness and dropout prevention. An Institute of Education Sciences (IES) practice guide on dropout prevention included recommendations for schools to intentionally address school climate. The U.S Department of Education and the US Secret Service have recommended school climate reform as an evidence based strategy to prevent violence. And, the U.S Department of Education has funded eleven State Departments of Education to develop school climate assessment and improvement systems.

PD: Where do you think schools have a breakdown in that process?

JC: There are several overlapping major challenges to school climate improvement efforts today: current accountability systems; few road maps; and

Public education is being driven by what is now measured: reading, math and science scores as well as rates of physical violence. These current measurement systems are problematic for several reasons: the data is being used as a “hammer” (to punish or praise individuals) and not a ‘flashlight'; as important as reading, math and science scores are, they do not recognize the essential social, emotional and civic aspects of learning that, in fact, provide the foundation for school - and life - success. And, the relentless focus on these scores contributes to educators feeling that they do not have time to do almost anything else other than teach to the test.

There is an even larger, systemically informed challenge. As Michael Fullan, David Tucker, Tony Bryk, James Comer and others have been writing about recent, America is now using four ‘drives’ to positively shape school reform efforts: (1) accountably systems; (2) a focus on the individual teacher or principal; information technology; and, “evidence-based programs”.

As important as all of these drivers or goals are, they have never been successfully used as primary drivers of school improving efforts. On the other hand, there is a growing awareness that the countries that have shown the most dramatic and educational significant gains i.e. Norway, Korea, Singapore, Shanghai’s, etc.) are using the following four, overlapping drivers as primary ‘change agents": (i) engaging everyone in the community - students, parents/guardians, school personnel and community members - to learn and work together to create an even safer, more supportive, engaging and helpfully challenging school; (ii) engaging students and teachers in a meaningful and continuous process of instruction and learning; (iii) supporting educators being able to work together as a more trusting and collaborative problem solving team, or what Jim Comer described almost 30 years ago as ‘no fault’ framework; and, (iv) insuring that our improvement efforts affect all teachers and students: in other words creating a meaningful community to learners/teachers. School climate reform uses all of these drivers as primary agents of change (End of Interview).

NSCC is an organization that helps schools integrate crucial social and emotional learning with academic instruction. In doing so, they enhance student performance, prevent drop outs, reduce physical violence, bullying, and develop healthy and positively engaged adults. For more than a decade NSCC has worked together with the entire academic community--teacher, staff, school-based mental health professionals, students and parents--to improve a climate for learning. NSCC help translate research into practice by establishing meaningful and relevant guidelines, programs and services that support a model for whole school improvement with a focus on school climate.

general information about school climate: www.schoolclimate.org
NSCC’s Five Stage School Climate Improvement Model: www.schoolclimate.org/climate/process.php

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.