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Assessing Foundations: How Strong Are Your Classrooms?

I recently spent a few days with leaders at one of the nation’s largest school systems.

Administrators were talking about their strategic plan. But they didn’t call it that.

They used another word: foundation.

They talked about teaching and learning. But they also talked about other things. Like how to recruit and retain quality classroom talent and the vital importance of a strong culture and climate.

I thought, “this is great.” Then it hit me: Too many of our nation’s school districts still don’t think this way–and that might be the single-biggest reason why so many of them are struggling to retain students and families.

Build a strong foundation

While teaching and learning is what everyone sees, culture and climate is what students and parents and teachers feel when they walk into your schools. It is, quite literally, your foundation for success.

If students don’t feel safe, if parents don’t feel engaged, if teachers don’t feel empowered to do their very best work, all the curriculum and instruction in the world won’t be able to support your vision.

study out of the University of Chicago supports this. Researchers examined data from hundreds of schools over a seven-year period. They found that school principals who focused on culture and climate were able to positively impact student success, often more so than by focusing on instructional changes in the classroom.

This isn’t all that surprising. Educators have extolled the virtues of a positive school climate for years. The problem is that most school districts take an ad-hoc approach. They dust off a once-annual climate or social-emotional learning survey and send it to students, parents, and teachers. In return, they collect tons of feedback. But they don’t always do this in a thoughtful and intentional way.

The reaction is often, “We’ve conducted a survey, now what?” It’s not unusual for community members to complain that their feedback has failed to result in change, or that a district has failed to listen to their concerns.

Focus on performance

When it comes teaching and learning, school leaders have begun to apply an impressive amount of rigor and analysis to their work. We can see, for example, how students test at grade level, and determine how likely they are to graduate. There are all sorts of tools and resources to help us match students with individualized learning.

Unfortunately, this same level of analysis isn’t often applied when evaluating other aspects of school improvement. The school communications officer, for example, doesn’t have an effective way to measure the impact of parent and community engagement. Outside of a once yearly survey on climate or social-emotional learning, school leaders have few ways to measure the effectiveness of culture and climate, or student, parent, and staff experience. These foundational elements of success are underserved almost everywhere.

The Hierarchy of Education

Like people, our schools survive and thrive according to a Hierarchy of Needs. Teaching and learning sits at the top. But it can’t succeed without a strong foundation. In the Hierarchy of Education, culture, climate, and experience matter.

That’s why we created K12 Insight–to help school leaders build that foundation.

Rather than pipe more resources into the classroom, our team works at the foundation to zero in on underserved areas like culture and climate. Our Let’s Talk! solution helps school leaders transform once-yearly climate and SEL surveys into continuous conversations and learnings that happen throughout the school year, any time.

The goal is to build stronger relationships with every engagement, providing each department, from curriculum to safety to transportation, with an easy way to listen to community members, collaborate on responses, and use real-time feedback to drive improvements across the school system.

It’s tempting to evaluate climate and culture through the lens of classrooms. If students and teachers are engaged in school, you might be right to assume a positive climate. Classroom engagement is a great indicator. But it’s also the result of a much deeper commitment, one that extends to every teacher and staff member in your district. The question now is: Have you laid a foundation on which they can truly succeed?    

If you’re focused on building a stronger foundation for teaching and learning this year, don’t underestimate the importance of culture, climate, and experience. Visit us at www.k12insight.com, or drop me a message to learn more. I’m happy to share some examples.