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What's the Best Way to Measure School Climate?

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The New York City school district has done a pretty good of job figuring that out, researchers say.

In a new brief from the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, researchers looked at the city's annual school climate survey of parents, teachers, and students—the largest of its kind in the country.

While it's now well-established that a good school climate is important to students' success in school, measuring the climate is still a work in progress, said the researchers, from New York University.

The quality of the survey is especially critical in New York, where scores from the survey, plus attendance rates, are the only non-academic indicators used in annual school report cards. The survey measures academic expectations, communication, engagement, and safety and respect, and the results are combined into a "school environment" score on annual school report cards.

School climate surveys have become more common across the country, however, and their use has been expanded by the U.S. Department of Education's Safe and Supportive Schools grants, which require their use and ratings of high schools based on the results.

Their conclusions about New York City's instrument:

  • Keep surveys as short as possible. New York City's survey would be reliable even with about half the questions now asked because the questions so closely relate to one another.
  • Make questions and possible answers consistent. This would make the survey shorter to complete, and that could encourage more to do so or take it at all. The response rate is pretty good now— 78 percent of 6th- through 12th-grade students and 83 percent of teachers take the survey along with about 50 percent of parents, but a shorter survey could boost those rates.
  • Ask parents, students, and teachers different questions. And don't combine their answers into a single measure of some aspect of school climate. For example, the brief said, "although teachers may be the best reporters of Academic Expectations, parents and students may have unique and important views on Safety & Respect."
  • Ask questions that allow comparisons between schools and are associated with other school performance indicators. For example, the brief said, ask teachers to report about their principal's instructional leadership.
  • Add questions that are better at gauging parent satisfaction and engagement. So items such as "I would recommend this school to other parents" would be a good way to tap into parents' overall satisfaction, the brief said.

The researchers found that school survey scores were significantly associated with school characteristics including student test scores and graduation rates. But these associations were not consistent. However, for high school outcomes, differences in school survey scores were associated with small but meaningful differences in the percent of students "on track" to graduate. So by improving aspects of the school environment in high schools, it's likely possible to increase the percent of students who are on track and graduate.

Speaking of school climate in New York City public schools, last month, a task force recommended that the 1.1 million-student district work on reducing out-of-school suspensions, summonses, and arrests of public school students. At the same time, the district should work on shifting to positive approaches to discipline, the New York City School-Justice Partnership Task Force said.

During the 2011-12 school year, the report said, the number of suspensions in the district was 40 percent higher than five years earlier—69,643 vs. 49,588. The report says the overwhelming majority of school-related suspensions, summonses and arrests are for minor misbehavior—but most schools in New York City handle that misbehavior without resorting to suspensions, summonses or arrests very much.

"Instead, it is a small percentage of schools that are struggling, generating the largest number of suspensions, summonses and arrests, impacting the lives of thousands of students," the report said. "This newly available data echoes findings from other jurisdictions indicating that suspension and school arrest patterns are less a function of student misbehavior than a function of the
adult response."

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

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