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States Keeping Eyes on School Climate

It’s hard to believe, but 2017 is fast approaching.

In the waning months of 2016, states and districts are working hard to develop plans for evaluating school performance under the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA).

ESSA rethinks how schools are assessed. While the law’s predecessor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), depended almost solely on standardized tests to measure school success, ESSA seeks a broader, more flexible system.

Schools will now be held responsible not only for how well their students do on tests, but also for the learning environments they offer.

As states and schools decide what non-academic factors they’ll use in their school accountability plans—school climate is just one option—they’ll also have to decide how to measure them.

Several states are experimenting with good, old-fashioned observation—what they call school inspections—to evaluate school climate and environment, as a recent article in Ed Week outlined.

Observation and feedback
Modeled after school assessment in England and other countries, the school inspection approach invites a group of educators or education experts to observe a school’s climate, culture, and engagement, and provide feedback to teachers and leadership.

The goal is to go beyond blind data—and get a real sense of how a school functions.

“It felt very personalized,” Emilie Knisley, superintendent of Blue Mountain School District in Vermont told Ed Week. “It felt like you could take the recommendations and take action on them in a way that you can’t when you’re just getting a set of test scores.”

As Ed Week points out, Knisley not only received feedback, but also observed another Vermont school district as part of the state’s pilot program.

While on the surface it may seem invasive, Knisley and other school leaders said allowing outside observers to take an unbiased look at their schools helped them see opportunities for improvement that they had overlooked. And the observations have encouraged leaders from different districts to share their successful approaches to common problems.

Measuring school climate
School inspections are not designed specifically to measure school climate, but they may prove to be a great way to assess an area of school performance that is not easily measured.

While the National School Climate Center acknowledges there is no consensus on how to measure school climate, it breaks down what the assessment should measure into four broad categories:

  • Safety
  • Relationships
  • Teaching and learning
  • External environment

It’s impossible to identify a single set of data that will accurately measure a school’s climate. That’s why states and schools that want to use school climate as a non-academic accountability measure under ESSA need to develop a comprehensive strategy.

School inspections are one approach.

But school climate shouldn’t be assessed without input from staff members, parents, and students.

Engaging your community through school surveys, focus groups, and other methods will help ensure your community’s voice is included in whatever assessment you do.

Make sure to check back tomorrow as we continue to explore school climate issues and ways districts can evaluate their school environments.

For more on the importance of school climate, read Why school climate is vital to school quality.