School Climate

July 13, 2017 13 min read
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18. State provides for charter schools. Twenty-five states now have legislation permitting charter schools. It is too early to judge the effectiveness of the charter movement, but the willingness of individual and organizations to commit themselves to the development of new and different kinds of schools seems positive and promising.

All of the efforts to establish new standards, develop new assessments, improve the quality of teaching, and increase funding will produce few positive results if the effects of that activity do not reach the classroom. How schools are structured and the conditions they create for both students and teachers are vitally important to academic success and the most difficult to change.

There are, to be sure, several thou and schools in the United States that have begun to evolve into institutions that embody best practice and the lessons of research. But most schools--in the way they are organized and run--remain much as they were half a century or more ago.

An analysis of data gathered in the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988--involving more than 800 schools and 10,000 students--showed significantly higher gains among 8th to 10th graders in schools that share high academic expectations, a strong curriculum, and strong instructional leadership. Such schools also pay more attention to individual students, use proven teaching methods, and involve parents. According to the research, students in these schools achieve significantly more than students in schools that don’t hare these characteristics.

We know what makes a good school? But knowing that and actually creating one are two very different things. Local control makes widespread change of schools extremely difficult. Even more, the autonomy of teachers, once they close the classroom door, virtually ensures that no significant change is likely unless they endorse it.

Nonetheless, states can establish policies and allocate fund in ways that help school become places that are much more focused on learning. Research suggests that one way to accomplish that is to make sure that schools and classes are small enough for teachers to know their students and work with their professional colleagues. That won’t happen in high school with enrollments in the thousands, or in classes with 35-plus youngsters. A teacher cannot be effective if he has to teach nearly 150 students a day.

Research also shows that school--and the teaching and learning within them--are more likely to change when the staff has a sense of ownership and control over the nature of change. And students perform better in schools where teachers plan and work together to solve problem are empowered to make decisions, and are encouraged to continue their own education and to be more professional.

State policy can encourage site-based decision-making and provide waivers of regulation’ so that schools are empowered to make decisions close to the students. There also is a strong movement to inject competition into public education, both as a strategy to improve schools and to provide teachers, parents, and students with consumer choice. Plan that allow families to choose among public schools and that permit teachers, parents, and other to form new school that are free of most state rule’ and regulations are becoming more common.

Learning and teaching cannot take place in schools that are not orderly and safe. Recent public opinion surveys reveal that both the public and educators are deeply concerned about the lack of order and safety in many public schools. Violence, drug u e, and gang activities are the extremes. But teachers increasingly report discipline problem and classroom disturbances that interfere with their teaching.

Such problems are more common in, but not limited to, urban schools. An increasingly typical response is to toughen discipline or, in extreme situations, in tall metal detectors, lock doors, and have armed guards or police patrolling schools. That is hardly a climate conducive to learning. States and districts can help restore order with policies that change the climate and culture of schools, so that children find them to be havens, place they want to be in, places they will respect. There are public schools in tough neighborhoods in big cities across the country that are safe, orderly, clean, and free of graffiti. They succeed with at-risk students because they are of human scale, they respect young people and make them feel welcome, and they adapt programs and schedules to meet the needs of their students.

Children spend much of their young lives in school buildings. For too many, it is like “doing time.” Most begin kindergarten full of enthusiasm and questions, eager to learn everything. Too many eventually drop out or earn a diploma without ever having experienced the joy of learning. The most important changes we can make in the public education system are those made at the school building level where teachers and students benefit directly.


Scale. Elementary class size and ratio of pupils to secondary English teachers. Indicator 1 and 2 account for 35% of the score.

1. Percent of K-6 teachers with classes of fewer than 25 students. Research shows that primary students in classes of 19 or smaller achieve at significantly higher levels. When class sizes climb to 23 and above, achievement tends to decline. Analysis of an extensive study in Tennessee by Frederick Mo teller of Harvard University shows a significant correlation between smaller classes and student achievement. Ronald F. Ferguson of Harvard University found that for 5th graders, lowering the pupil-teacher ratio from 21-to-1 to 18-to-1 has the same effect on achievement as would result from having the proportion of college-educated adults in the community increase more than 20 percentage points.

The importance of smaller classes has long been evident to educators. In our survey, 83% of teachers, 60% of principals, and 44% of superintendents agree that class size in elementary schools should not exceed 17. There is some research that shows that the ideal class size for the first three grades is about 17; but for grades 4-6, a class size of 21 or 22 is most effective. Of course, simply reducing class size is not enough to raise achievement levels. (See story, page 58.) Teachers who teach small classes the way they teach large classes may be no more effective in small classes.

There are also examples from other countries of teachers with larger class sizes, who use different pedagogies, and whose students achieve at high levels. But the cultures and education systems in those countries also differ markedly.

In scoring this indicator, we are mindful that reducing class size is expensive but offers great promise. Its implementation would undoubtedly be hampered by the inadequate supply of well-prepared teachers who could meet the rigorous licensing standard called for by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. That is especially true for the coming decade, when the Baby Boom echo will swell enrollment. Given that, and the fact that small classes alone may not result in greater gains, we use in our scoring an elementary school class size of fewer than 25 children. That is a reasonable interim goal and an important one.

The actual percentage of teacher who reported having class, of that size was used in calculating the state’s final point score. This indicator counts for 17.5% of the state’s total core.

2. Percent of secondary school English teachers with fewer than 80 students. For teachers, particularly secondary school teachers, it is not uncommon to have 130 or more different student in the four or five classes they teach. Giving personal attention to that many students is virtually impossible. Reading papers, checking homework, grading exams for that many students inevitably require hours of work at home after school and lead to burnout.

Distinguished educator with long experience tell us that teacher are more effective and students achieve at higher levels when a teacher is able to know and give attention to each of his students. In a study of high schools, William Sander of De Paul University found that a 10% decrease in pupil-teacher ratio is associated with a 1.5 percentage point increase in graduation rates. Another study by Michael Boozer of Yale University found that lower pupil-teacher ratio are significantly associated with lower student dropout rates.

We believe this is a very important indicator and that states should make every effort to reduce the number of students a teacher teaches each day to fewer than 80. Meeting that goal, however, will require additional funding and an adequate supply of teachers who can meet rigorous licensing requirement--neither of which is likely to be readily available in many states. Noting that 71% of Vermont’s teachers have fewer than 80 students, and 61% of New Jersey’s, we concluded a reasonable benchmark would be 75%. Therefore, we graded states on their actual percentages adjusted to a curve where 75% equal an A. This indicator counts for 17.5% of the state’s total core.

Local Autonomy. Site-based management, deregulation, increased flexibility, and public school choice. Indicators 3, 4, 5, and 6 count for 20% of the state’s total core.

3. Site-based management. A majority of state have provision that encourage or require teachers, administrators, and others at the school site to participate in making decisions. Research indicate that in school where this occurs the staff tend to take collective responsibility for student learning, and the students make greater and more equitable gains in math and science. One study concluded that an average student in a school with high levels of collective responsibility would learn more than twice as much science as a similar student at a school with low collective responsibility. In our own survey, 95% of teachers and principals and 93% of superintendents agree that important questions affecting students--such as curriculum, scheduling, and teaching styles--should be decided as close to the classroom as possible. We gave states that permit or require site-based management 100%, or an A, states that don’t received 75%, or a C.

4. Percent of schools that have a decision-making body including teachers. Many local governing bodies include administrators but not teachers. The percentage listed is used to calculate a state’s final score.

5. State grants waivers of education regulations. A majority of the states have made it possible for districts to petition either for exemption from specific provisions of the education code or for a blanket exemption. In our survey, 89% of teachers and 91% of principals and superintendents agree that states and district should substantially reduce regulations so that schools have more authority over function like hiring, spending, and scheduling. State that provide blanket waivers to all schools or let schools petition for waivers get 100%, or an A; those that only provide waivers to certain groups of schools get 75%, or a C; those that don’t grant waivers get 50%, or an F.

6. States with statewide open-enrollment programs. Choice, charter schools, vouchers, and privatization have b come hotly debated political issues. We chose this indicator because there is general agreement that public school choice that allows families some option in selecting schools is good. State with statewide programs received an A, or 100%; those where choice is only available within a district get a C, or 75%. States with no choice provisions received an F, or 50%.

School Safety; Perceptions of Teachers. These two indicators count for 25% of the score.

Indicators 7 and 8. Percent of secondary teachers who think physical conflicts and weapons are problems in their schools. School should be sanctuaries for young people, places where they feel safe from violence and conflict. Without safety and order, curricula, pedagogy, and innovations are beside the point. To score this indicator, we subtracted the e percentages from 100 to yield the percent of teachers who thought that physical conflicts and weapon were less of a problem in their schools. That number was used to calculate the grade. The two indicators count for 25% of the grade.

Teacher and Principal Roles; Perceptions of School Personnel. The next four indicator count for 10% of the state’s score.

Indicators 9,10,11, and 12. Perceptions of principals’ and teachers’ roles. These indicators deal with leadership, collaboration, goals, and mission and are highly correlated with school and student performance. Students do better when the staff of a school has a coherent idea of its goals and mission and is focused on achieving that mission. Change and innovation are more likely when there is a strong instructional leader in the school with responsibility for improvement. The actual percentage in the columns are used to calculate the state’s score.

Student and Parent Roles. Percentage of teachers in schools who think absenteeism, student apathy, and lack of parental involvement are not serious problems. The next three indicators count for 10% of the score.

Indicators 13, 14, and 15. Percent of teachers who believe that absenteeism, apathy, and lack of parental support are not serious problems. The absence of these problems is strongly correlated with high performing schools, after controlling for race, class, etc. These three indicators are from the 1994 U.S. Department of Education’s Schools and Staffing Survey.

For Information Only. 16. Percent of students enrolled in elementary schools with 350 students or fewer. Researchers at the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that elementary school students do better in school with enrollments of 350 or less .. These smaller schools are also consistently more successful in developing a sense of professional community, fostering leadership, and involving parents. Ideally, every child would attend a small school. In our survey, 42% of teachers, 50% of principals, and 37% of superintendents believe that elementary schools should not exceed 350 students. About 38% of teachers, 25%of principals, and 18% of superintendents don’t know and express no opinion.

Although we did not score this indicator, we believe school size is very important and deserves attention. State can achieve a more human scale for elementary pupils, without sacrificing economies of scale, by helping district to create schools within schools. Currently, only a handful of states have a majority of students in small schools, and they are states with largely rural populations.

17. Percent of high schools with 900 or fewer students. Researchers at the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools at the University of Wisconsin found that high schools with between 600 and 900 students are most effective. The ideal size for middle schools is 400 to 800 students. Other studies show that higher levels of “professional community” occur in schools with 385 to 1,000 students and rarely in schools with more than 1,200. In our survey, 56% of teachers, 64% of principals, and 55% of superintendents agree that enrollment in middle and high schools should not exceed 900. But 29% of teachers, 18% of principals, and 16% of superintendents are neutral on the subject.

As with elementary school size, we think smaller middle and secondary schools are better. Problems of size can be minimized by creating smaller schools within schools, which does not require sacrificing efficiencies or constructing new buildings.

18. State provides for charter schools. Twenty-five states now have legislation permitting charter schools. It is too early to judge the effectiveness of the charter movement, but the willingness of individual and organizations to commit themselves to the development of new and different kinds of schools seems positive and promising.

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.


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