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Lesson 5.10

School Climate:
What Makes a School Good?

Many schools require uniforms. Here’s why.

hero image

Image: Dreamcharter-139 CC Ferris

The world's most famous school is imaginary. In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling introduces readers to Hogwarts, a school with tremendous personality.

The students are magically selected and sorted. Their robes and powers distinguish them from non-students. The teachers work tirelessly to make the school a safe and supportive place for learning, but they face challenges. Rivalries and prejudices divide the students. Dementors lurk beyond the gates.

Our schools and classrooms lack the magic of Hogwarts, but students don't need a sorting hat to separate themselves into groups. The cool kids hang out in this hallway. The serious kids go to that one. The kids who speak Spanish tend to assemble over here, and the kids into sports tend to gather over there.

To unify a group is hard, especially if it is diverse. School leaders, teachers and parent leaders can bridge differences, with effort, desire and time. The mechanics of school work better when each student is included and motivated, but it doesn't just happen. Great teachers succeed partly by creating a culture that "works" for learning in their classrooms. Great schools create a culture of learning beyond individual classes or grades.

A Climate of Learning

Many popular movies feature a teacher (real or fictional) who inspires students to great efforts. These teachers are usually portrayed as heroes or anti-heroes who somehow "get through" to students in unexpected ways. Here are a few -- please leave a comment to add your favorite (or anti-favorite) to the list:

These movies are widely appreciated by educators, but also resented. To succeed, must teachers be so selfless, or attractive, or demented? Does an effective school climate require teachers with Hollywood-grade charisma? If so, who will pay to send 300,000 California teachers to charisma school… and would it work?

There is certainly evidence that school leaders and faculty members working together can create school culture intentionally, even without a crazy superhero at the helm. Famously, the KIPP network of charter schools uses short slogans like "Work Hard, Be Nice" to define and develop school climate.

Elements of School Climate

'Bully-victim behavior' is a public health problem affecting up to a quarter of students every year.

A growing body of research backs up the common sense observation that school climate matters, and it can be developed intentionally. The National School Climate Center assembled research on school climate in A Review of School Climate Research. This rather dense academic report suggests that "school climate" can be thought of in five dimensions. Here are the actionable conclusions:

  1. Take bullying seriously. Although physical assault is rare in most schools, bullying is common and corrosive, and the effects are long-lasting. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, "bully-victim behavior" is a public health problem affecting up to a quarter of students every year. On any given day, as many as 160,000 students may stay home from school because they are afraid of being bullied. Victims of bullying often remain quiet out of shame or fear. Among the more important priorities for a healthy school climate is to support the idea that trouble is best avoided before it happens. In particular, a school culture that demonizes "tattle-tales" or "snitches" is set up for trouble. It's hard to feel sympathy for bullies, but they warrant attention, too. Bullying behavior strongly predicts future trouble with the law, among other things.
  2. Invest in relationships. School is personal. Students may or may not thrill to the subject matter of a class, but they decide quickly and intuitively whether teachers care about them and whether they care about their peers. Teacher absenteeism and turnover are measurable warning signs of troubled relationships in a school climate.
  3. Take learning seriously. Successful schools make learning the central activity, and support teachers to make it so.
  4. Light up the dark spots. Bad things happen less often in spaces that are supervised.
  5. Create a plan to improve school climate. Don't leave it to chance. This turns out to be really hard to do unless you have a clear point of view about what improvement looks like and how to measure it.

Measuring School Climate

School climate clearly matters a lot, but many of its qualities are hard to measure. Surveys can help, allowing comparisons to other schools or comparisons over the course of time. Under the right conditions, these surveys can spark discussions that lead to insights and action. In order for surveys to perform this function usefully, however, they must be consistent, and someone with credibility in the school community has to make people take time to look. Results must be delivered promptly in ways that are clear and relevant, or they will simply be ignored. This is hard to do.

In California, the most widely-used survey that relates to school climate is the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS). This survey is a component of the broader California School Climate Survey (CSCS). Many California districts have some experience with these surveys because they were briefly supported by federal Title IV funding in the 2008-09 school year. When this source of funding dried up, the survey became one of the many things that school districts can decide to invest in (or not) as part of the funds they receive under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Lessons learned from California's grant to improve school climate offer insight for school districts going forward.

California school districts are obligated to include information about school climate as part of their Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). The Healthy Kids (CHKS) and School Climate (CSCS) surveys provide an obvious mechanism to deliver on that requirement, so some school districts continue to use the Healthy Kids Survey or alternatives based on it. For example, survey results are available for California's largest district, Los Angeles Unified, in the form of PDF reports that can be downloaded and printed.

Just a Suggestion

The state of California does not collect information from school districts about these surveys because doing so would constitute a state "mandate." As part of the "tax revolt" movement of the late 1970s, California voters passed Proposition 4 in 1979. This proposition requires that state-mandated local expenses, including reporting expenses, must be reimbursed by state funds under the oversight of the Commission on State Mandates. These mandated reimbursements are a consistent source of tension and litigation, and the California legislature generally avoids data collection requirements unless required as a condition of a federal grant program.

In the final years of the No Child Left Behind era, some of California's school districts joined a coalition known as CORE. The coalition developed school accountability policies as part of an agreement with the federal department of education, enabling them to continue receiving certain federal funds. The CORE districts developed a School Quality Improvement Index (SQII) that includes some measures intended to reflect elements of school climate, such as attendance and discipline data. It does not include survey data. The image below summarizes how elements are weighted in the SQII Accountability Score.

SQII-2016

In 2016, related changes in Federal policy prompted the California State Board of Education to incorporate a measure of school climate into a new statewide school accountability system. After much debate, the rate of chronic absence is now included as an element of the state's accountability system to evaluate schools and districts.

School Uniforms

In order to create a distinct school culture, many private schools have long required their pupils to wear uniforms. Uniforms create a visible shared identity among schoolmates, and reduce the visibility of wealth differences, at some cost to personal expression. In the early 1990s, California’s Long Beach Unified became America’s first public school district to require uniforms for its students. The students’ strong improvement in academic performance drew national attention. Some charter schools have re-interpreted the idea in a more low-key style.

In part, uniforms are a strategy to reduce bullying. They also can play a role in reducing gang identification in schools. Many charter schools and private schools use school uniforms, which now generally consist of slacks and a polo shirt or sweatshirt with a logo. California law permits schools to establish uniforms but requires schools to help economically disadvantaged students pay for them.

Are uniforms a magic answer to urban school improvement? Of course not. There is no automatic correlation between uniforms and learning. Implementing uniforms can create a sudden and visible change in a school environment, but it is up to the school’s leaders and faculty to create the less visible changes that drive student learning. Arguments and claims on all sides are summarized here by PublicSchoolReview and discussed more extensively on Greatschools.org.

The next lesson explores one of the major recurring themes of school reform: small schools.

This post was updated in June, 2017

Review

Uniforms cost money. In California, can public schools require students to buy and wear them? Select the best answer below.

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp February 14, 2017 at 9:57 pm
Los Angeles Unified collected student survey data about bullying, summarized by the LA Times. Not encouraging.
user avatar
Jeff Camp December 16, 2016 at 4:23 pm
Does it help a school keep order if there are police present? Probably not, research suggests: http://data.huffingtonpost.com/2016/school-police/nasro
user avatar
sfritts9 April 29, 2015 at 5:43 am
By having uniforms in the school will take one less "conversation" from the kids on bullying others. Back in the Midwest we had uniforms in elementary private and public schools.
user avatar
Tara Massengill April 20, 2015 at 2:31 pm
I agree that uniforms would lower bullying incidents. Some kids can be really focused on whether or not other have the "right" kind/brand of clothing.
user avatar
irma.i.brito April 16, 2015 at 12:15 pm
I love the idea of uniforms. Shows Unity and it's a great way to lower bullying incidents
user avatar
trckrnnr April 2, 2015 at 12:53 pm
As a teacher in high school I would support uniforms. The way the young girls dress is inappropriate, and I will not let any girl in a dress or shorts sit in the front row. That's for my protection as a teacher.
user avatar
lb2vta March 20, 2015 at 4:55 pm
I am a proponent of school uniforms, having lived in Long Beach and seen firsthand that it works for public school children. There are other more pressing issues, but wanted to show support for the content in this lesson.
©2003-2017 Jeff Camp
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