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School Climate Matters

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It really, really does.

That's the conclusion of a massive new review of research by experts at the National School Climate Center and Fordham University, both in New York City.

Distilling more than 200 studies and literature reviews, they concluded that "sustained positive school climate is associated with positive child and youth development, effective risk-prevention and health-promotion efforts, student learning and academic achievement, increased student graduation rates, and teacher retention."

A sample of what they found in the body of research they reviewed:

  • School climate affects middle school students' self-esteem and lessens the negative effects of self-criticism.
  • A positive and sound socio-emotional climate at school is related to the frequency of students' substance-abuse and psychiatric problems.
  • Even better: A positive school climate is linked to lower levels of drug use as well as fewer self-reports of psychiatric problems among high school students. In early adolescence, a positive school climate is predictive of better psychological well-being.
  • A series of studies revealed that a positive school climate is correlated with decreased student absenteeism in middle school and high school. Furthermore, a growing body of research has indicated that positive school climate is critical to effective risk prevention.

While the researchers found abundant literature from all over the world that documents the power of a positive school climate, they did point out one flaw in the research: There's no common definition of what school climate comprises or what defines a positive school climate.

A study out at the tail end of April—too late to be included in the researchers' review—a from WestEd and the American Institutes for Research concluded that a positive school climate was the defining factor of success at 40 out of 1,715 California middle and high schools. In other words, researchers found that schools' climate indicated whether students would do better than expected given the makeup of the student body.

Schools at these so-called "beating-the-odds" schools had climate scores at the 82nd percentile, on average, where other schools measured at the 49th percentile, on average, using the California Healthy Kids Survey.

The researchers compared schools that had similar breakdowns of students, and for schools to be considered to beat the odds, students from low-income families, English-language learners, Latino students, and black students all had to be performing better than expected on state exams in English and math.

Among beating-the-odds high schools, though, researchers found these schools tended to have fewer students than schools where students didn't do better on state tests than predicted. The higher-performing schools also had slightly lower student-to-staff ratios and slightly more experienced teachers. But researchers said when these variables were accounted for in their analysis, the schools labeled as beating the odds still had more positive climates than their counterparts where student performance was lower.

"Improving school climate should help any school, but it particularly should be part of turning around a low-performing school," Gregory Austin, the director of WestEd's Health and Human Development program and a co-author of the study, told EdSource. "For low income communities with a lot of nonschool problems, such as poverty, the research suggests that providing a safe, developmentally supportive school will help mitigate the risk factors."

Read the study for yourself below.


Follow Rules for Engagement on Twitter @Rulz4Engagement and Education Week Staff Writer Nirvi Shah on Twitter @NirviShah.

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