School & District Management

Positive School Climates May Shrink Achievement Gaps

By Evie Blad — November 15, 2016 3 min read
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Schools where students feel safe, engaged, and connected to their teachers are also schools that have narrower achievement gaps between low-income children and their wealthier peers.

A research analysis found correlations between improved school climates and narrower achievement gaps between students in different socioeconomic groups.

Authors of the analysis, published this month in the Review of Educational Research, examined 78 school-climate-research studies published between 2000 and 2015 to detect trends.

All but one of those studies found a relationship between improved school climate and student achievement.

“Our analysis of more than 15 years’ worth of research shows that schools do matter and can do much to improve academic outcomes,” study co-author Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social work and education at the University of Southern California, said in a statement.

“Our findings suggest that by promoting a positive climate, schools can allow greater equality in educational opportunities, decrease socioeconomic inequalities, and enable more social mobility,” he continued.

In one notable finding, researchers detected no correlation between school climate and a school’s socioeconomic levels. This suggests that positive school climates are possible, even in schools with high-need, low-income student populations, the authors write.

Although the studies included in the analysis used inconsistent definitions for school climate, the authors generally define it as “positive teacher-student relationships, sense of safety, and student connectedness to and engagement in school.”

Schools take a variety of actions to improve school climate, from implementing stronger anti-bullying policies to setting up procedures to ensure that discipline is used consistently among all racial and ethnic groups.

Among the authors’ findings: A positive school climate can weaken the effects of low family income on achievement.

“About 13 percent of the studies found that climate has a moderating influence on the relationship between background characteristics and academic achievement,” the analysis says. “For example, some studies indicated that positive climate decreases the correlation between [socioeconomic] background and academic achievement, whereas negative school climate increases this correlation, primarily among students with lower [socioeconomic] backgrounds.”

“Positive school climate has the potential to break the negative influences that stem from poor socioeconomic backgrounds and to mitigate risk factors that threaten academic achievement,” co-author Ruth Berkowitz, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Haifa, Israel, said in a statement.

Improving Research

The authors also suggest ways to improve school climate research.

One problem is that inconsistent definitions of school climate and methods of measurement across studies make it difficult to draw conclusions from their collective results.

A uniform, consistent definition; consistent forms of measurement; and more rigorous, longitudinal research would help strengthen findings and show the strength of school climate improvements’ effects on classroom achievement, they said.

In addition, research should incorporate multiple measures of success, weighing the input of teachers, staff, and others beyond students, who remain the narrow focus of much school climate research, the analysis says.

Consistent, reliable research will be more and more necessary as states and schools increasingly incorporate school climate into their accountability and improvement strategies, the authors write.

Schools may increase their focus on climate because the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law, requires states to incorporate at least one “other indicator” into their accountability systems in addition to such traditional measures as student-test scores.

The law lists a few examples of those other indicators, including school safety, student engagement, and school climate.

“There is a tangible, immediate need to construct a common definition and reliable climate measurements that can be translated into practice and policy guidelines,” USC’s Astor said. “In the absence of a clear and uniform definition and measurement of school climate, the ability of researchers and stakeholders to evaluate school climate growth over time is restricted.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as Positive Climates May Shrink Achievement Gaps

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