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Could a smile help close the achievement gap?

student smiling

If you had only one word to describe your ideal school what would it be?

Innovative? High-tech? Diverse? Competitive? What about happy?

For a lot of education leaders, happiness, while important, isn’t the first quality that springs to mind when trying to close the achievement gap.

But new research suggests maybe it should be.

According to an article from NPR Education, a report in the Review of Educational Research suggests that a positive school climate can boost student success and help close the achievement gap.

As schools rethink how they plan to assess student success under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), school climate is poised to play a larger role. And, educators across the country are preparing for that.

Creating a positive feeling

When it comes to improving school climate, attitude is much more valuable than wealth, posits Ron Avi Astor, a professor and co-author of the study.

After poring through 15 years of research, the research team concluded that not only did a positive school climate correlate with higher academic success, it also found that the perception of school climate was not linked to the socioeconomic status of a school.

In other words, schools in low-income neighborhoods were just as likely to have a positive school climate as schools in wealthier neighborhoods.

NPR highlights the example of Weiner Elementary School in Weiner, Ark.

In a town of just 700, where 99 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, resources are hard to come by. But that hasn’t stopped principal Pam Hogue and her staff from making a positive school climate their top priority.

Each morning at Weiner is focused on starting kids off on a happy note.

Hogue and her staff work to create “a feeling in [the] building,” beginning with a morning dance party, and a celebratory assembly of singing and recognizing excelling students. “When you walk in here, it just feels right. It looks like a place where learning is happening,” she tells NPR.

That genuine feeling isn’t easy to create, even with the best resources or the newest technology, Joaquin Tamayo, director of strategic initiatives at the U.S. Ed Department tells NPR:

“Improving school climate is tough, it’s tedious, it’s incremental,” he says. “But when folks can do it right, and when they really put not just their mind but their heart into it, it’s just such a beautiful thing.”

Measuring happiness

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to a positive school climate. Each school and district has to confront a unique set of cultural and socioeconomic challenges. That was one reason why ESSA was created—to expand the lens of students and school success.

If you’re goal is to improve school climate, it’s a good idea to start with a simple question: What’s your definition of happiness in school?

Do you know what motivates students to learn? Do you know which aspects of school they like and which ones they don’t? Do you know what makes your students happy day in and day out?

Now’s the time to find out.

What steps do you take to promote a positive school climate in your schools? Tell us in the comments.

Want more ideas about how to assess, measure, and improve school climate? Download the webinar “Making feedback matter: How school climate affects school quality,” featuring insights from veteran educator and researcher Dr. Stephan Knobloch and Dr. Jim Angelo, assistant superintendent for instruction at Frederick County Public Schools (Va).

About the Author

Todd Kominiak
Todd is Managing Editor of TrustED. Email: tkominiak@k12insight.com.

1 Comment on "Could a smile help close the achievement gap?"

  1. I absolutely agree that school culture is essential to student success and that we want to create an environment where students are happy. It is essential we take a deep dive when thinking about what makes students happy. Research shows that most students of color face biases from their teachers and school leaders. Let’s support our schools to examine their biases. Secondly, when growth mindset is infused into a school culture and climate, students enjoy learning more. Thirdly, research shows that young people thrive when offered choice, relevance, brain breaks, and opportunities for mastery. Finally, yes, let’s have fun.

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