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Flashback 2016: Why school climate is vital to school quality

Students in hallway

This week, we’re looking back at the stories that resonated the most with you in 2016. This story was first published in October.

I’m a researcher by training. So, I look closely at what data tells me before jumping to conclusions.

One area that I have been keenly interested in of late (given the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and the introduction of non-academic indicators as a measure of success) is the link between school climate and student learning.

When classrooms are open and inviting, students tend to engage better and more completely with schoolwork. When parents are invited into classroom conversations and expected to be involved in the learning process, support for schools and for teachers tends to increase.

To understand the link between school climate and student learning, school leaders have to understand how these relationships work in context.

In a recent webinar, “Making feedback matter: How school climate affects school quality,” I teamed up with Dr. Jim Angelo, assistant superintendent for instruction at Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) in Virginia, to uncover best practices for improving school climate.

As part of that conversation, I outlined three “must-dos” to make school climate surveys work for you.

  1. Align your climate survey work with your district’s goals.
  2. Apply feedback in the context of existing efforts, such as your existing strategic plan.
  3. Create a roadmap or a blueprint to turn climate feedback into action in your school or district.

Dr. Angelo and I had a lot to talk about. If you’re considering conducting a school climate survey this year and want some ideas about how and why to do that, download a full recording of our conversation here.

Prefer the Cliff Notes version instead? Below is a quick summary of a question-and-answer session we held with attendees.

Q: There are five school climate dimensions in most climate surveys—academic support, student support, school leadership, parent involvement and safety and behavior. Are these dimensions always the same? Are there others? How do I know which ones to focus on?

Dr. Knobloch: For benchmarking and school climate surveys, we develop our instrument based on the research. So the five dimensions—academic support, student support, school leadership, parent involvement, safety and behavior—are ones where parents, students, and teachers can give feedback. And then that data becomes the core of the survey.

In some instances, we customize the benchmark study and add dimensions. One that jumps out to me is this idea of faculty relations and congeniality. So, the environment in which the staff are working is another dimension. But, of course, student and parents wouldn’t have feedback on it.

Q: How can districts hold themselves accountable to identify what needs to be changed but also make sure they’re actually making the correct changes for their district?

Dr. Angelo: You have to hold yourself accountable. That’s part of being a learning organization and that’s part of moving forward and making improvements.

I think that because of the dimensions that are included in the survey, it makes it pretty easy to align with your work. You have to have those measures of success along the way. We certainly can’t wait two years to measure whether what we did made a difference. We’ll get that feedback from students, staff, and parents in the survey, but we have to do it more frequently than that.

We also certainly look at student data.

All of this data has to be taken in context. This was one piece of information, one piece of data, but we also have student achievement data, benchmark assessments, we have behavior data. If we see what we’re doing isn’t making a difference based on data, then we make changes.

It’s an ongoing process.

Q: Once your results tell you where you need to improve, how do you prioritize where to start making changes?

Dr. Angelo: You have to look at it from a few different perspectives.

You can look at it from the perspective of, “What’s the most critical area?” We received that information from our survey provider. They gave us the top three or four areas by participant. And then we looked at that and said “What are the commonalities?” And, we addressed it that way.

But I think you also have to look at it in context of the dimensions.

For example, improving student behavior without improving instruction is not as impactful on student learning.

You have to take it in context of one another, and not necessarily take the top two or three or four issues. But instead, take the top two or three or four factors across the dimensions that are going to have the greatest impact.

For more on how to leverage changes in school climate to improve the quality of instruction in your school or district, download our full presentation.

About the Author

Stephan Knobloch
Dr. Stephan Knobloch was formerly director of research for Loudoun County Public Schools. He is currently chief learning officer at K12 Insight.

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