School Climate

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When it comes to encouraging all students to learn, teachers alone do not set the tone. The entire community sets it.

Last year, as members of our local council of PTAs, we organized a community forum on risky teenage behavior. More than 750 people showed up to hear our featured speaker, Patricia Hersch, whose book A Tribe Apart: A Journey Into the Heart of American Adolescence addressed some of our concerns. Her message was one that most of those present took to heart: If we want to help our kids make the passage through these turbulent years in good shape, we need to "be there" for them—not just parents, but the whole community.

This year, the presumptive topic for our forum was minority achievement. As it is in many other districts, the so-called "achievement gap" is one of the hot-button issues in our community of Arlington, Va., a diverse and relatively affluent suburb of Washington. Even in similar socioeconomic circumstances and comparable schools, African-American and Latino kids do not score as well on standardized tests as their white peers. Our school board and superintendent have made closing the gap one of their top priorities. Not only is it highlighted in the strategic plan, but the school system also has joined a pathbreaking network of similarly diverse (and relatively well-off) suburban districts around the country to study and address the issue.

So the question we asked ourselves was not whether the topic was worthy of community attention, but how to approach it. Should we look at one of the tangible manifestations of differential achievement? Specifically, should we look at tracking? At the high proportion of minority students assigned to special education? The low proportion in gifted-and-talented and advanced classes? Should we focus on the disproportionate numbers of minority students who are the subject of disciplinary actions, or the lower number involved in after-school activities? All of these factors have been shown to correlate with lower academic achievement.

By defining the "problem" as "minority achievement," we seemed to be pointing the finger of blame at one group of students.

But by defining the "problem" as "minority achievement," we seemed to be pointing the finger of blame at one group of students. We had an uneasy feeling that, just as risky teenage behavior could be seen a symptom of underlying community patterns, so, too, could the roots of the minority achievement gap be traced to a community's history, values, and practices. We asked ourselves: Shouldn't we be exploring the causes and the context, rather than the symptom?

Then we found a different thread into the tangle. In her inspirational book Other People's Children, the African-American teacher and scholar Lisa Delpit writes of how the cultural world of school can work against minority children learning. If a school's messages—spoken and unspoken—serve to undermine a child's culture or loved ones, then that child's desire to learn will be placed in direct conflict with his or her attachment to home. Ms. Delpit concludes that schools must embrace the worlds from which their children come, while at the same time teaching them what they need to know to succeed in the broader, dominant culture.

Does such a fuzzy, feel-good approach really make a difference? As we were contemplating this question, the Howard University educator Wade Boykin spoke at a session on minority achievement given for Arlington teachers. What he said held meaning for us. In a study of African-American and white children at an integrated school in the South, Mr. Boykin found similar socioeconomic backgrounds for both groups of children. Yet, when the students were given a vocabulary test above their achievement level, the white children did better. He asked the teacher audience why they thought this might be so.

A number of familiar explanations were offered: the level of the parents' education, home environment, the availability of books. The professor listened noncommittally and continued. At the end of his talk, he returned to his research. He had given us only part of the results, he revealed, for when the vocabulary test in question had been structured differently—when it had encouraged and rewarded cooperative group behavior, rather than competitive individual behavior—the African-American children not only outperformed the white children on that version, but also on a second administration of the original test.

Lights went on.

When it comes to encouraging all students to learn, teachers alone do not set the tone. The entire community sets it. The community's values are reflected in its schools. Those values can point toward collaborative vs. competitive evaluation (Mr. Boykin's issue), celebration vs. devaluation of nonmainstream cultures (Ms. Delpit's point), and intentional connections with adults (Patricia Hersch's premise). The common, underlying theme is what has come to be known as "school climate."

This factor is one of the criteria Education Week uses in its annual report assessing public education in the 50 states. ("Quality Counts 2001: A Better Balance," Jan. 11, 2001.) Indicators such as class and school size; student attendance, tardiness, and misbehavior; parental participation in back-to-school nights, open houses, and parent-teacher conferences; and the availability of choice, either within the public school system or in the form of charter schools, make up the raw data by which school climate is measured.

Climate is a key indicator of good schools. But it amounts to much more, we think, than these relatively superficial indicators. Neither is it only about minority students, though there are without a doubt aspects of it that have special relevance for minority students. The environment in a school—the messages a school sends through its structure, organization, even its physical space and the behavior it encourages, enables, and expects—affects every person in that school. School climate reaches all students, all teachers, all parents, everyone who is part of the school community.

The tone of the place where our children spend the majority of their time will necessarily affect their behavior and their chances for success.

Over the years, we've heard various groups talk about how "their" kids don't get enough attention, how "they" feel unconnected or unempowered or not respected. Groups commonly attribute such feelings to the fact of who they or their kids are. They are teachers or they are parents. They have kids in special education, gifted-and-talented kids, "kids in the middle." The list goes on. Everyone ascribes any sense of alienation or unease they feel to who they are. But the truth is that there are issues of school climate that apply across the board.

The studies that link healthy behavior in teenagers to success in school, those that link minority achievement to participation in after-school activities, Mr. Boykin's data showing that African-American (and white) kids prefer cooperation to competition in the classroom—these are all pointing toward an underlying truth: School climate matters. It matters because kids are people, and people do better when they feel supported and welcome and connected. The tone of the place where our children spend the majority of their time will necessarily affect their behavior and their chances for success. School climate, we found, is the common thread connecting student-achievement issues to those of behavior and community-building.

And for that reason, our next forum will carry this title: "School Climate: Connecting With Kids and the Community."

Palma Strand, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, and Melinda Patrician, an independent communications consultant, are the founders of The Arlington Forum. They both are parents whose children attend the Arlington County, Va., public schools.

Vol. 20, Issue 40, Page 38

Published in Print: June 13, 2001, as School Climate
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