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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

When Measuring School Climate, Context Is Key

By Jack McDermott — March 05, 2017 3 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Jack McDermott, product marketing manager at Panorama Education, a company that partners with K-12 schools and districts to measure social-emotional learning, school climate, and family and community engagement.

As states finalize new school accountability plans under ESSA, measures of school climate have received increasing attention. Many states have included school climate as a “non-academic” indicator of school quality in their recently drafted plans. Meanwhile, groups of educators and students in states from California to Massachusetts have advocated for better approaches to measuring school climate.

While the benefits of a positive school climate have been known for decades--increases in students’ academic achievement, fewer disciplinary incidents, and even improved teacher retention--less is known about the implications of measuring and reporting on school climate in the years ahead.

Measuring school climate
At Panorama Education, we’ve supported over 6,500 schools across the country in collecting and analyzing data about school climate and social-emotional learning. Given the ongoing conversations about measures of school climate, we wanted to better understand the nuances of using school climate surveys across a wide range of school contexts.

We recently analyzed survey results on the Panorama Student Survey from over 2,000 diverse schools across the country. This free, open-source survey instrument asks students to respond to climate-focused questions:

  • How fair or unfair are the rules for the students at this school?
  • How often do your teachers seem excited to be teaching your classes?
  • How pleasant or unpleasant is the physical space at your school?
  • At your school, how much does the behavior of other students hurt or help your learning?

What does the school climate survey data say?
We started by examining how survey scores correlate with a wide range of school characteristics, including: grade level, racial/ethnic diversity, proportion of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL %), region, urbanity, student-teacher ratio, and Title 1 status.

Overall, we find that school level (elementary, middle, high) shows the strongest relationship between survey results and school characteristics. We also see that as students move from elementary to middle to high school, their positive views of school climate tend to decrease. Therefore, school climate survey results at one school level may not always be comparable to those in other school levels.

In this animated screenshot of a Panorama report, it’s clear how a school climate score of 63% favorable (the pink line) is actually quite different at each school level. This score is in the middle 50th percentile for elementary schools, but moves all the way up to the 90th percentile for high schools; a change of forty percentage points on the same survey questions at different school levels.

Why is this important? If you’re a school or district administrator, these comparison points can provide a more accurate picture of your school’s climate. By comparing “apples to apples,” or how an elementary school compares to other elementary schools, this report becomes more meaningful and actionable.

As states move towards including measures of school climate under ESSA, it’s important to develop nuanced measurements and reports that help educators act on data and improve school quality for students. In other words, when you’re measuring school climate, context is key.

Peter DeWitt does not work with Panorama Education. He is, however, interested in school climate.

Lead photo courtesy of Travis Wilber.

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.