New Online Tool Expands Access to School Climate Measurements
Monitoring facets of school climate—like how safe, supported, and welcome students feel in their schools—has, until recently, been off limits to some districts that lack the resources or know-how to accurately measure those perceptions.
Tracking those factors is necessary to ensure that efforts to improve the learning environment are effective and that schools don't overlook the needs of students from some populations, like those from racial minority groups, researchers say.
That's why the U.S. Department of Education released a free, online survey tool this month that will allow schools, districts, and states to administer regular, anonymous school climate surveys.
The survey, developed by a panel of school climate experts, uses questions from existing surveys that were tested with panels of students to ensure their validity.
The site creates an instant analysis of a school's results, and administrators can save the data in existing local data systems so they can track results over time.
Its release comes as schools are increasingly exploring the effects of non-academic factors on student success, and as states are poised to broaden their accountability systems under a new federal education law.
A new online survey tool released by the U.S. Department of Education will allow schools to measure student perceptions of a variety of school climate issues:
- Cultural and linguistic competence
- School Participation
- Physical environment
- Instructional environment
- Physical health
- Mental health
- Emotional safety
- Physical safety
- Substance abuse
- Emergency readiness/management
"If you're not a Cleveland or if you're not a Los Angeles or a Chicago, before it was cost-prohibitive in many cases to engage in this kind of survey, analysis, and reporting," said Sandy Williamson, the director of the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, referring to urban districts with existing school climate measures.
'Complicated But Doable'
A growing number of states, including California, also have statewide school-climate surveys, although not all of them are as extensive as the new federal tool, and many are not mandatory for schools and districts.
Williamson helped create a guide to school climate improvement that outlines a cycle of adopting strategies and programs to improve learning environments, keeping tabs on how those interventions go, seeking feedback from parent and community members, and tracking data about how students respond to those efforts over time.
"The message needs to be that not one size fits all," Williamson said. "There's not one program, there's not one thing that schools can do that is going to fix this. It's a complicated but doable set of activities, thoughtful planning, and engaging stakeholders."
The kinds of changes that schools have made to improve students' sense of safety and belonging run a wide gamut.
They include reworking discipline policies to reduce reliance on suspensions, ensuring that classroom reading materials include characters from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, teaching students how to talk through and resolve problems with their peers, and creating systems to ensure that administrators quickly respond to reports of bullying and harassment.
Schools make these efforts in part out of hopes for returns on academic achievement.
Researchers have found that school climate improvements have led to students who are more likely to be engaged in the classroom, to adopt a willingness to learn from mistakes, and to avoid problematic behaviors.
"What we are seeing consistently is that there is a relationship between how students experience the environment and how they perform academically and, I think more importantly, how they engage academically," said David Osher, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research who helped oversee work on the new survey.
It's a matter of science, he said. A sense of anxiety reduces a student's working memory, which is essential for learning and processing classroom materials.
So things like strategies to reduce the likelihood of bullying and other efforts to drive down environmental contributors to anxiety can actually improve student learning.
Osher helped design a "conditions for learning" survey for the Chicago school district that the Cleveland district now uses.
Over time, he has found that as a school's climate scores improve, it also sees correlating improvements in academic performance, discipline rates, and engagement.
That aligns with the work of Carol Dweck, the Stanford University researcher who popularized the idea of a growth mindset, or a recognition that a person's talents and academic strengths are not fixed and can grow through effort.
While many educators have shown great enthusiasm for the idea of encouraging such mindsets, by allowing students to explore and rethink their mistakes, for example, many have overlooked the school-wide factors that can support or detract from such work, Dweck said at Education Week's Leaders to Learn From event in March.
"What is the larger culture that allows teachers and students to feel safe? That we're out for your development?" she said. "We're not here to sort you into who can succeed and who can't."
There are some people who have cautioned about educators' expanding focus on, and tracking of, student perceptions.
Some data-privacy advocates are concerned about the growing amount of non-academic data schools measure and track at a student level and about how securely they store that data.
To try to answer those concerns, the new climate survey is anonymous, and schools can store resulting data on local or state data systems, its creators said. In the future, federal officials plan to pull a small, anonymous sample of results to set a national baseline of school climate measurement.
The survey asks students questions about a range of topics, from their understanding of school safety efforts to their perceptions of their peers' ability to navigate social and emotional situations. And it may be useful for more than program improvement.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law approved by Congress in December, requires states to include at least one indicator other than academic achievement in their school accountability systems.
While the law gives states' broad discretion in what indicator to choose, it includes school climate among a list of possibilities.
Some researchers have said student surveys about their own social and emotional skills are not sophisticated enough to be used for accountability purposes.
Climate measures, on the other hand, are more advanced and more accurate, making them more appropriate for use in the systems that states use to measure schools' effectiveness, Osher said.
"We now have a decade of experience measuring this stuff, knowing that it can be measured and what to avoid," he said.
The survey and the school climate guide are online at safesupportivelearning.ed.gov/edscls.
Vol. 35, Issue 28, Pages 1, 11Published in Print: April 20, 2016, as New Online Tool Expands Access to School Climate Measurements