Which school do you want to support?
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 — and a sorting hat.
At real schools, even without a magic hat, students tend to separate themselves into groups. The cool kids hang out in this hallway. Academic kids go to that one. The kids who speak Spanish tend to assemble over here. Kids into sports tend to gather over there.
To unify a group is hard, especially to do so in ways that respect and celebrate differences. School leaders, teachers and parent leaders can bridge differences with effort, desire and time. School works 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.
The National School Climate Center defines school climate as "the quality and character of school life," or the at-school experiences (positive or negative) of students, teachers, and staff. Schooling climate has many dimensions: safety (see Lesson 5.13), social relationships, teaching/learning, and overall environment. If you're trying to assess your own school's climate, ask yourself...
'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:
A student's sense of safety and belonging is often tied to their social identities. Research by WestEd on the racial school climate gap suggests that students of color feel less safe and included at school than their white peers do. To address this problem head-on, some schools work to develop an anti-racist school culture. Check out this list of actionable items for advancing equity in schools post-pandemic. A buzzword worth knowing: intersectionality, which gestures at the idea that identity can have overlapping elements, and that students can face more than one form of disadvantage.
School climate clearly matters a lot, but many of its qualities are hard to measure. School districts are required to include plans for measurably improving school climate as part of the annual Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). (You can find it in "priority 6" of your district's LCAP.) The California Department of Education recommends a school climate survey as a model practice.
School climate surveys can help leaders inspire change by giving visibility to issues that matter to faculty, parents and students. 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 they must be used. Someone with credibility in the school community has to assemble the data and inspire people to take the 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), a component of the broader California School Climate, Health, and Learning Surveys (CSCHLS). 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.
Students have a lot to say about their schools. Ironically, the California School Climate Survey does not include a model for collecting feedback from them. There are alternatives. For example, the National School Climate Center provides surveys that include students. Ed100 Lesson 2.10 explores practical approaches.
A 2018 report by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids found that the state's guidance about school climate surveys is often ignored. The state of California doesn't check, and has no mechanism to collect information from school climate surveys that are conducted. Why? Because doing so would constitute a state mandate — and state mandates have to be state funded. More about state mandates in Lesson 7.3.
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.
Education reform's popular focuses can change over time. For example, in the '90s, the subject of debate was school uniforms. Many private schools have long required pupils to wear uniforms. 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. While some were in favor of such policies because uniforms create a visible shared identity among schoolmates, and reduce the visibility of wealth differences, others argued that they presented too great a cost to personal expression. As of 2017-18, about a fifth of public school districts required uniforms, Long Beach still among them.
In part, uniforms are a strategy to reduce bullying. They also can play a role in reducing gang identification in schools. California law permits schools to establish uniforms, but requires schools to help economically disadvantaged students pay for them.
Did this great debate offer a magic solution 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 Public School Review and discussed more extensively by Greatschools.org.
The next lesson explores one of the major recurring themes of school reform: small schools.
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