Why is measuring school climate important?
School climate and social and emotional conditions for learning affect attendance, engagement, learning, and academic performance (Osher & Kendziora, 2010; Thapa, Cohen, Guffey, & Higgins-D'Alessandro, 2013). The Conditions for Learning are those aspects of school climate that are most closely related to attendance and learning. They include perceptions (and experience) of: emotional and physical safety; emotional support and connectedness; academic challenge and support; and peer and adult social and emotional skills. While these conditions are important for all students, they are particularly important for students who are at risk of poor outcomes and for helping to improve their learning (Osher, Sidana, & Kelly, 2008; Osher, Kendziora, Spier, & Garibaldi, 2013). It’s vital, especially in schools with high poverty rates, to be able to efficiently measure school climate.
What options do States, districts and schools have for measuring school climate?
There are many options for measuring school climate and conditions for learning. School climate batteries vary by the number of surveys and respondents (e.g., just for students and teachers, student surveys aimed at just high school students), how surveys are administered (e.g., paper/pencil and/or electronic), how and what data is reported, and cost. For example, the ED School Climate Surveys (EDSCLS), a new, FREE web-based platform allows states, districts and schools to (a) administer school climate surveys to students, family, instructional staff, and non-instructional staff and then (b) act on reliable, nationally-validated data in real-time. There are also many other valid and reliable school climate batteries available. For a list, go to https://safesupportivelearning.ed.gov/topic-research/school-climate-measurement/school-climate-survey-compendium.
What does it look like when schools measure and use school climate data?
Cleveland provides an ideal test case, particularly for schools that serve large numbers of students who experience poverty and its adversities. Cleveland is useful for a few reasons: problematic demographic trends, good data on school performance, as well as on the effects of interventions to improve conditions for learning, and the fact that it has used the same measures since 2008 to assess conditions for learning.
Cleveland is one of the few districts in the nation where 100 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. The City’s poverty rate for children was 54% in 2014 (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2016). Compared with other cities, including Flint, MI, Cleveland also has very high rates of children with lead poisoning (CDC Surveillance, 2014). In addition, Cleveland has been ranked as the most segregated of American Cities (Florida & Mellander, 2015).
All Cleveland schools, like other Ohio Schools, receive a school performance index that is a compilation of all state testing. In addition, since 2008, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) has implemented a survey to assess Conditions for Learning (CFL) and how they change as a product of Cleveland’s effort to improve safety and student teacher relationships, to build student social and emotional competencies, and to provide tiered services to students who are at greater levels of risk and need. The CFL scales assess student perceptions of school climate: physical safety, emotional safety, peer social-emotional competence and norms, student support and connectedness, and academic challenge and support. The American Institutes for Research examined the data in 2008 and 2013 (Osher et al., 2008; Jarjoura & Osher, 2013) and found relationships between conditions for learning and academic performance. We now have repeated these analyses using data from 2008 to 2015, and have determined that Performance Index of the schools, which is based on standardized tests, is highly associated with the student perceptions of the conditions for learning. For example, our analyses of data from the 2012–13 school year found that:
- For Grades 2–4, conditions for learning scale categories explain 63.3% of the variance in school performance indices. When attendance is added to the analysis, the combination of attendance and the four conditions of learning explain 74.8% of the variance. Emotional and physical safety are especially relevant (and statistically significant) in these grades.
- For Grades 5–8, conditions for learning scale categories explain 59.3% of the variance in school performance indices. When attendance is added to the analysis, the combination of attendance and the four conditions explains 67.1% of the variance. Emotional safety is especially relevant (and statistically significant) in these grades.
- For Grades 9–12, conditions for learning scale categories explain 79.3% of the variance in school performance indices. When attendance is added to the analysis, the combination of attendance and the four conditions of learning explain 83.9% of the variance.
These same analyses were replicated for each of the 7 academic years and produced similar findings (Osher & Davis, 2016; Osher, Davis, & Berg, 2016; Osher, Neiman, & Davis, 2015; Osher, Poirier, Jarjoura, Haight, & Mitchell, 2014). These findings are consistent with statewide research in Alaska (Spier, Cai, Kendziora, & Osher, 2007) and California (O’Malley & Hanson, 2012), as well as with reports from states which participated in the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Supportive Schools Program, which used surveys to drive interventions to improve school climate, behavior, and academic indicators in troubled schools.
Students learn best when they feel safe, supported, challenged and accepted. Lessons from states and districts show that schools and districts can collect and analyze school climate data to target interventions. However, for this to be effective, schools and districts need to employ reliable and valid measures and do so in a manner that protects confidentiality.