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School Climate & Safety Opinion

Why School Climate Matters

By Urban Education Contributor — March 26, 2018 4 min read
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This week we are hearing from the Cleveland Alliance for Education Research (CAER). This post is Adam Voight, Director of the Center for Urban Education at Cleveland State University (@CLE_State).

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective on this research.

Why This Research

In recent years, school climate has received increased attention in education policy, research, and practice. A positive school climate is one where members of the school community feel physically and emotionally safe, supported, challenged, and connected. Research and theory suggest that by improving a school’s climate, positive education and developmental outcomes for students will follow.

In response to this evidence and a need to improve the safety and support of its students, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) has made significant investments in school climate improvement and assessment in the past decade. This work has occurred largely under the auspices of a newly created division within the department, Humanware (named to emphasize the importance of the “human” elements of school safety in addition to hardware like cameras and metal detectors), and in collaboration with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and other partners.

In 2017, the Center for Urban Education at Cleveland State University (CSU) established a research-practice partnership with CMSD and AIR called the Cleveland Alliance for Education Research (CAER). The first major research task of the partnership involved examining the relationship of school climate and education outcomes like student achievement, attendance, and behavior. The knowledge generated from CAER’s research will enhance the district’s ongoing efforts around school climate.

What The Research Is Examining

The goal of the partnership research is to identify the dimensions of school climate (e.g., safety, teacher expectations and support, and student relationships) that are predictive of student success and to identify any gaps in experiences of school climate by student subgroups (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, disability). Answers to these questions can shed light on the drivers of student achievement, attendance, and behavior and on how to make school climate interventions more equitable and sensitive to diverse student needs.

One outcome of CMSD’s long-term commitment to school climate improvement is a multiyear archive of student survey (AIR’s Conditions for Learning Survey) data. From 2012 to 2017, the survey was administered three times per year to all students in grades 2-12. These survey administrations aligned with the administration of a standardized math and reading test used across the district. This unique dataset allows for a rigorous examination of the over-time relationship of individual students’ perception of school climate and their education outcomes.

What The Research Is Finding

While our results are still preliminary, initial findings suggest that if a CMSD student’s perception of safety, teacher expectations and support, and peer relationships improve from one season to the next (e.g., from fall to winter), her math and reading achievement and attendance also improve, and she receives fewer discipline referrals. This association is strongest in the lower grades (2-4) but still significant in the highest grades. It is almost twice as strong, in general, for students with disabilities.

By estimating a series of fixed-effects regression models, we furthermore examined how school climate at one point in time predicts education outcomes in the future, and vice-versa. For example, this approach can determine whether a student’s report of her school climate in fall predicts her math achievement in spring. Likewise, it can determine whether her math achievement in fall predicts her climate report in spring. Our results suggest that the direction of the relationship between these two phenomena flows from school climate to student education outcomes rather than the reverse.

Finally, our results suggest that boys in CMSD view their schools as safer than girls across all grade levels, and English language learners in the district generally report a more positive school climate than their peers.

Implications For Practice

As a result of several conversations between CAER partners organizations—including researchers and practitioners—regarding how to disseminate research findings, the group decided to create research briefs organized by school climate dimension (e.g., safety, teacher expectations and support, student relationships) and intended for school principals, teachers, and student support staff. Practitioner members of CAER, in particular, felt that it was important for school building-level staff to have this knowledge about school climate in the district to help them make decisions about how to allocate resources. These briefs summarize our key research findings and provide practical implications for how to improve school climate with attention to student diversity.

Practical recommendations include implementing social and emotional learning classroom curricula with fidelity, identifying community wrap-around services that align with the needs of one’s students, and building strong relationships with families.

Our work going forward will explore how the implementation of various programs in CMSD affects school climate. This knowledge will provide contextualized guidance to district staff on how to foster safe and supportive schools for and with their students.

Curious about other research topics partnerships have written about for this blog? See this Guide to the NNERPP EdWeek Blog for all previous blog posts organized by research topic area to easily find other posts of particular interest to you!

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice 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.


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