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Report: Effective school leaders need to focus on climate

principals school climate

Great teaching and learning is critical to student success. But educators have long known that the secret to a great education hinges on more than great classrooms.

For students to succeed, they have to feel safe, physically and emotionally. Absent that foundation, it’s hard to focus.  

Now, a new study out of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research looks at another critical element: school climate–and suggests that a positive climate could be the missing link.  

What does strong school climate look like?

University of Chicago researchers combined district-wide data, student and teacher survey results, and observations from school visits and interviews in Chicago Public Schools over a seven-year period between 2007 and 2014.

The report’s authors concluded that school principals most effectively influenced student achievement by developing or improving strong school climates. Here’s an excerpt:

“…districtwide data showed that a strong school climate is most important for achievement growth. Even among schools that start out with safe climates or high achievement, further improvements in school climate are associated with higher achievement gains.”

From interviews with staff and students, researchers assembled a list of climate-focused strategies that contribute to student success:

  1. Staff must hold each other accountable for student achievement–whether in their own classes or in others.
  2. Staff must continuously review student data–grades, attendance, test scores, etc.–and hone teaching approaches and improve outcomes.
  3. Staff must cultivate high expectations for student performance and behavior–and these expectations must be consistent throughout the building and the district.
  4. Schools should offer universal supports for students that are “opt-out” rather than “opt-in,” in which students do not have to seek support on their own.

Teacher leadership is key

A second conclusion from the University of Chicago study found that principals more effectively fostered strong school climates when they supported teacher leadership.

According to the report:

“Schools with the highest learning gains had principals who promoted a strong school climate by empowering and coordinating the work of teachers and school staff around shared goals. Improvements in school climate set up all teachers and students to be successful.”

What does this look like in practice?

Through interviews, the report found that strong school climates were achieved when:

  1. Teachers worked together and were accountable to each other.
  2. Teacher meetings were organized around achieving specific school goals.
  3. Principals actively supported teacher teams and aligned their work to school goals.

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Listening to students and parents

The University of Chicago study is proof that strong leadership is vital to school quality and student success. But strong leadership must be informed by the perceptions and experiences of students and parents in school.

Every school year, hundreds of school districts solicit feedback from students and families through school climate surveys. Whether administrators eventually use that feedback to improve the school experience is often another story.

But efforts to effectively use climate data are underway in several states.

At the Frederick County Schools in Virginia, for example, administrators recently used a climate survey to better understand how students and parents felt about their neighborhood schools.

The school division worked with researchers from K12 Insight (K12 Insight produces TrustED) to develop a climate survey that asked about safety and behavior, academic support, school quality, and other factors that impact teaching and learning.

Dr. Jim Angelo, the division’s assistant superintendent for instruction, described the climate process this way:

“Being able to hear from students and parents and get that bigger picture across the division and within each individual school was absolutely critical as we moved forward with our comprehensive plan and our school improvement plans.”

Working with researchers from K12 Insight, district administrators used that feedback to help school leaders and teachers understand community priorities–and inform the creation of a new strategic plan.

As your district looks to create a culture of student success, are you putting enough emphasis on climate and culture? If not, it might be time to start.

What steps do you take to listen to and learn from your school community? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

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

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