It’s the million-dollar question or, given the size of the California education budget, the $50-billion-dollar question: What makes extraordinarily successful schools different from other schools? The answer: school climate, according to a new study from WestEd, a San Francisco-based research agency.
In recent years, the concept of school climate has gained increasing currency in education reform circles and the California Department of Education has received federal grants to evaluate school climate in 170 schools, as well as Safe and Supportive Schools grants to fund programs that enhance school climate. As defined by the WestEd study, a positive school climate includes caring relationships between teachers and students, physical and emotional safety, and academic and emotional supports that help students succeed. The goal of a positive school climate is “a sense of belonging, competence and autonomy” for both students and staff, the report said.
The study looked at 1,715 California middle and high schools, sorted them by student demographics, and analyzed them by peer group. Schools that served students from high-income families with few special needs were compared to schools with a similar student cohort; schools with students from low-income families who were learning English were compared to schools with the same demographics.
Of the schools, researchers identified 40 as consistently and significantly outperforming similar schools on the California Standards Tests and the California Academic High School Exit Exam. Researchers dubbed this group the “beating-the-odds” schools because their test scores were better than would have been predicted, based on the students they were serving. The overperformers were city and suburban schools from a wide swath of communities, including Sacramento, Los Gatos, Piedmont, Fresno, Long Beach, Ventura and San Diego.
The key ingredient of overperforming schools? Unusually positive school climates, a measure of how connected, motivated and safe students feel at school, researchers said. The report also identified 20 underperforming schools and found they, too, shared a trait: unusually negative school climates.
School climate was more strongly associated with driving up or down test scores, relative to similar schools, than teacher experience or staff ratios, according to the study, “A Climate for Academic Success: How School Climate Distinguishes Schools That Are Beating the Achievement Odds.”
“School climate appears to be a really promising factor associated with academic success, regardless of where a school is and the types of students a school serves,” said Adam Voight, lead author of the WestEd study.
“Improving school climate should help any school, but it particularly should be part of turning around a low-performing school,” said Gregory Austin, director of WestEd’s Health and Human Development program and a co-author of the study. “For low income communities with a lot of non-school problems, such as poverty, the research suggests that providing a safe, developmentally supportive school will help mitigate the risk factors.”
To measure school climate, WestEd researchers used student responses on the California Healthy Kids Survey, which was given to California public school students in 2007–08 and 2008–09, as well as school truancy rates. The Healthy Kids survey asks students to evaluate how safe, supporting and engaging they perceive their school to be; how often they are victims of violence; and how often they use alcohol, tobacco or other drugs. From the responses, researchers calculated an overall rating they called the School Climate Index.
Among the overperforming schools is Fresno Unified School District’s Edison Computech High School, where 59 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, an indicator of low family income. Research has long shown that students from higher income families with more resources perform significantly better, on average, on achievement tests than students living in poverty.
The 2012 score on the Academic Performance Index, the state’s main measure of a school’s academic performance, for Edison was 945, well above the 800 API score the state has set as the target for all schools to meet.
Brian Wall, who served for three years as principal at Edison High until becoming a district assistant superintendent in 2012, described a college-going culture among the students, families and teachers, with a focus on preparing students for Advanced Placement classes.
In addition, the school works to ensure that students feel part of the school community. “That’s the engagement factor, and we measure that,” Wall said. “How many students feel they’re connected to at least one adult on campus? We take a survey. We try to get every kid into some kind of club or extra-curricular activity and connect them to an adult that way.”
Day Creek Intermediate School in the Etiwanda Elementary School District in San Bernardino County is another overperforming school, compared to its peers, with an API score of 939 in 2011. Ten percent of students at Day Creek qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
Charlayne Sprague, who served as principal at Day Creek before becoming a district assistant superintendent in summer 2012, described a culture designed to connect and motivate both teachers and students. For one period a day, middle school students regroup to work with teachers, who may or may not be their core teachers, on acceleration or re-teaching of subjects.
“When teachers start seeing kids outside of their core class groups, they start building relationships across grade level, and working with teachers on strategies, and collegiality gets built,” she said.
Howard S. Adelman, co-director of the School Mental Health Project at UCLA, says a positive school climate emerges from what he calls “a unified and comprehensive system of learning supports.” A first step is often bringing together the existing team of supporters – everyone from teachers to school counselors – and developing a coordinated plan of support for students and staff. When students receive the support they need to succeed, teachers feel successful and climate improves, he said.
The most lasting improvements start with state or district policies. “This has got to be dealt with at a policy level so it’s sustainable,” Adelman said.
State education officials are enthusiastic about improving the climate in schools, said Gordon Jackson, director of the state Department of Education’s Coordinated Student Support and Adult Education Division, which oversees health, counseling and other support programs provided at schools. Jackson participated in a webinar introducing the study results on April 24.
“Our state is underperforming compared to what we believe our students are capable of,” Jackson said. “How can we replicate these results? How can we encourage people to move forward?”
He added, “I see this as the opportunity to walk the talk, so we can actually make the kind of difference that students are telling us we need to make to improve their lives.”