Special Report
School Climate & Safety

Schools Aim to Craft Environment for Learning

By The Editors — January 04, 2013 5 min read
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This 17th edition of Education Week‘s annual Quality Counts report takes aim at an issue freighted with emotional as well as policy implications: the impact of a school’s social and disciplinary environment on students’ ability to learn and on the teachers and administrators tasked with guiding them.

National initiatives to improve schools tend to focus heavily on curriculum, testing, and personnel. But a growing consensus also recognizes that the elements that make up school climate—including peer relationships, students’ sense of safety and security, and the disciplinary policies and practices they confront each day—play a crucial part in laying the groundwork for academic success. Those factors, along with resources and the ability of school staff members to meet students’ needs, are seen as especially important for low-performing schools and at-risk students.

Policymakers have begun responding to such concerns in recent years by focusing on aspects of students’ well-being beyond simply their academic health. A number of federal initiatives reflect the shift. They include a set of school climate grants awarded to 11 states (now in their third and final year), White House-led programs on bullying awareness and prevention, and a partnership among federal agencies designed to change the way schools discipline students.

“The conditions for success in schools include not just having high-quality teachers, but ensuring that they are working in schools designed for success. In schools designed for success, there’s a growing interest in ensuring that school climate supports students,” says Deborah Delisle, the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

Multiple Factors

In analyzing the ways in which school climate can support—or hinder—academic achievement, Education Week‘s reporters drew on the latest research and visits to schools putting into practice approaches intended to assure a secure, supportive learning environment.

They trace the rise, and the fall from favor, of punitive, often discriminatory “zero tolerance” discipline policies, along with the emergence of promising alternative models that seek to reduce conflict and ensure schoolhouse safety without resorting to expulsion or out-of-school suspension.

In the classroom arena, they document ways in which educators are working to bolster students’ ability to cope with academic and personal pressures that can interfere with learning and lead to peer conflict and bullying. They look at the challenges that teachers, administrators, and school-level support personnel face in fulfilling their mission amid constraints involving time, training, and staff resources.

Finally, this package examines factors often left out of the school climate discussion: the role of parents and community groups—and even of a school’s physical design and layout—in the learning environment.

Field Survey

To complement Education Week‘s reporting, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center conducted an online survey of registered users of the Education Week website. More than 1,300 school-based personnel, responded to questions on a range of issues involving school climate, safety, and discipline.

The results of the survey offer insight into the views of teachers, instructional specialists, principals, and other building-level administrators who have valuable, first-hand experience with efforts to craft a safe, supportive school environment.

State of the States

Quality Counts 2013 continues the EPE Research Center’s annual practice of ranking the states on a range of key education indicators—with detailed tracking for each of the three categories updated in this year’s report—and of awarding summative letter grades and scores for the states and for the nation as a whole across all six categories that make up the report’s grading framework.

This year, the report updates Quality Counts’ signature Chance-for-Success Index, which looks at the connection between education and beneficial outcomes at each stage of a person’s life; school finance indicators, which capture the level and equitability of school funding; and transitions and alignment, examining how states work to coordinate K-12 schooling and other aspects of their education systems at various stages of a student’s career.

Three additional categories—k-12 achievement; standards, assessments, and accountability; and the teaching profession—were updated in the 2012 edition.

Grading Highlights

Taken together, all six categories form the basis of the report’s state-by-state summative scores and rankings, and the grades for the states and the nation overall.

Maryland, for the fifth consecutive year, receives the top grade in the nation, with a B-plus. In second place is Massachusetts, with a B, followed closely by New York state and then by Virginia. (All four states took the same slots in Quality Counts 2012 and have consistently ranked high in past reports.) Joining the top-10 list for the first time is Kentucky, which earns a B-minus.

At the other end of scale, South Dakota for the second year in a row takes the bottom spot, with a grade of D-plus. The nation as a whole receives a score of C-plus—joining 19 states in that tier. Overall, a large majority of states—37, plus the District of Columbia—receive grades ranging from C-minus to C-plus in this year’s report.


Even with most states clustered in the middle tiers of the grading scale, performance in certain categories included notable standouts:

  • Massachusetts captures the top ranking in the Chance-for-Success Index for the sixth year in a row, earning an A-minus.
  • In the category of transitions and alignment—which puts a particular focus on early-childhood education, college readiness, and career readiness—Georgia becomes the first state to earn a perfect score for these policies.
  • In the school finance category, West Virginia leaps to second in the nation, with an A-minus, up from 14th place last year. Wyoming once again tops the list in that category, receiving the only grade of A.


Technical Advisers

Larry Aber, distinguished professor of applied psychology and public policy, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University • Angela Duckworth, assistant professor of psychology, department of psychology, University of Pennsylvania • Janice Jackson, executive director, Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education • Carolyn Laub, executive director, Gay-Straight Alliance Network • Daniel J. Losen, director, Center for Civil Rights Remedies, The Civil Rights Project at UCLA • Russell Skiba, director, Equity Project, professor in counseling and educational psychology, Center for Evaluation and Educational Policy, Indiana University • Karen Webber-Ndour, executive director, Office of Student Support and Safety, Baltimore City Public Schools • David Osher, vice president of human and social development, American Institutes for Research • Roger P. Weissberg, president and chief executive officer, Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning

Education Week would also like to thank the following individuals for their assistance: Kate Dando, director, communications, Council of Chief State School Officers • Paul Ferrari, manager, online communications, Council of Chief State School Officers • Kate Nielson, policy analyst, education division, National Governors Association

Board of Trustees, Editorial Projects in Education

Larry Berger, CEO, Wireless Generation Inc. • Gina Burkhardt, executive vice president, American Institutes for Research • Chris Curran, co-founder and managing partner, Education Growth Partners • Virginia B. Edwards, president and editor-in-chief, EPE and Education Week (ex officio) • Mike Lawrence, chief reputation officer and executive vice president, Cone Communications Inc. • Barbara Newton, president, Sunset Publishing • Jim Sexton, vice president digital, B.A.S.S., Bassmaster • Lester Strong, CEO, AARP Experience Corps • Marla Ucelli-Kashyap (chair), assistant to the president for educational issues, American Federation of Teachers • Jerry D. Weast, founder and CEO, Partnership for Deliberate Excellence • Ronald A. Wolk (chair emeritus), founder, Education Week (ex officio) • Jessie WoolleyWilson, CEO and president, DreamBox Learning

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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