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Adopting School Climate Surveys Under ESSA: A Model From Chicago

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This week we are hearing from the UChicago Consortium on School Research. Today's post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner's perspective on this research.

This post is by Penny Bender Sebring, co-founder of the UChicago Consortium on School Research, Elaine M. Allensworth (@E_Allensworth), Lewis-Sebring Director of the UChicago Consortium, and Bronwyn McDaniel, Director of Outreach and Communication at the Consortium.

What can we expect to learn from ESSA's required "fifth indicator," the non-traditional measure of school quality? One direction states are turning is toward capturing students' and teachers' experiences through school-climate surveys. Many districts use such surveys as part of their school improvement efforts. Yet, the indicators required under ESSA are about accountability, as well as school improvement, raising serious and unanswered questions about whether and how these surveys can satisfy both purposes.

Here in Chicago, sixth- through twelfth-graders and all teachers have been taking the My Voice, My School surveys since the early 1990s. Most of the survey measures the 5Essentials, a framework developed and validated by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium). It stems from research showing schools that are rated highly on measures of effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environment, and ambitious instruction are far more likely than others to show improvements in students' learning gains.

Under supportive environment, for example, students respond to questions about safety, including how safe they feel "outside around the school" or "traveling between home and school." Regarding ambitious instruction, students indicate experiences such as how often a particular class "really makes me think," and "the teacher asks difficult questions on tests." For a measure of program coherence, teachers register the degree to which "special programs come and go at this school."

The UChicago Consortium, and later UChicago Impact (our training and dissemination partner), have always provided each school a report of its own results. The beauty of the 5Essentials report is that each school can see whether it is getting more or less robust on the 5Essentials and take action accordingly. If, for example, students' ratings of safety started to decline, school leaders could monitor unsafe areas and/or more consistently enforce routines.  

For 15 years, these reports were confidential, but in 2011, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) requested the results be made public. Researchers worried that teachers and students would feel pressured to make their school look good. Nonetheless, a number of benefits ensued. People were more invested in taking the survey because they knew their responses counted. Teachers and other staff received their results sooner, and parents, community groups, and external partners working with schools gained access to the survey results. While response rates went up, there was no increase in unusual response patterns, and the surveys continued to predict student outcomes.

Beginning in 2013-14, the 5Essentials reports evolved further, as CPS made them part of its accountability system, again raising concerns that data quality might decline. Currently, the 5Essentials count 10 and 5 percent respectively toward the accountability scores of elementary and high schools. Thus, Chicago is in the middle of the improvement vs. accountability dilemma. As more states and districts adopt climate surveys, with some included as accountability metrics under ESSA, it will be important to learn from their experiences and the different conditions under which the surveys are implemented about the best ways to use school climate surveys to improve our nation's schools.

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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