School Climate in the District and Beyond

By Sandra Mansour, Policy Fellow

School climate has always been an important area in education, but given the global COVID-19 pandemic, education officials are giving this area of schooling increasingly more attention. School climate does not refer to whether a school’s temperature is hot or cold, as the name might entail. Rather, while there is no single definition for school climate, it is commonly understood as encompassing the learning environment—how respected and supported students feel in schools, how much they feel like they belong at their school, and how safe they feel in their school. 

Policymakers believe schools that were already focused on improving their school climate may be in a better position to deal with the pandemic because those educators have experience in creating supportive learning environments and maintaining relationships with their students and families. School climate also includes areas such as students’ social-emotional wellbeing or the availability of mental health services. Research has shown that a strong school climate is associated with many positive educational outcomes for students, such as increased attendance, engagement, and learning. It can even counteract the negative effects of poverty on academic achievement.

Under the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), every state must evaluate a school on at least one school success/school quality (SQSS) measure and states have the discretion in deciding how to measure SQSS. In some states, the SQSS measures include a quantitative and/or qualitative evaluation of “school climate” (as defined above), like a survey.

Some states have included school climate surveys as the way to measure SQSS in their state-based accountability frameworks, while others have not included surveys in the official framework, but use them to guide school improvement efforts. Some states are wary about the accuracy of surveys to reflect the true quality of schools, and therefore do not implement them at all. 

According to the National Association of State Board of Education (NASBE), as of January 2020, eight states officially use school climate surveys in their accountability frameworks: Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Carolina. In these states, the surveys only account for about 5–10 percent of the accountability formula, which is a way of taking the results into account but not giving them too much weight in the final school ratings, as surveys are a relatively new tool. In half of these states, school climate surveys are the only way states measure SQSS. In the other half, school climate surveys are paired with other school climate measures, such as chronic absenteeism, college and career readiness, or access to a well-rounded curriculum.

Other states focus on other measures of school climate or implement different initiatives to lead improvement efforts. Rhode Island, for example, includes student suspension rates as part of its SQSS indicator. The goal is not to punish schools for high suspension rates but rather to enable their education department to provide schools with resources that reduce the need for disciplinary actions like suspensions. Such resources might include mental health services, mentoring, school counseling, and positive behavioral interventions.

Minnesota established a School Safety Technical Assistance Center within their education department to implement statewide bullying prevention and evidence-based social-emotional learning (SEL). The Center (now called the School Climate Center) provides training, technical assistance, and guidance to support district efforts, including school climate initiatives in rural districts. The initiatives include professional development for culturally responsive SEL, equitable discipline policies emphasizing restorative practices, and mental health services.

Pennsylvania launched a School Climate Leadership Initiative in order to support education leaders in improvement efforts. The initiative helped build leadership capacity and established a leadership network at the school and district level by working with the National School Climate Center and with regional resource centers. The state encourages—but does not require—schools to use its school climate survey and has recently passed legislation that requires school safety and assessment criteria to include trauma-informed education, behavioral health, suicide and bullying prevention, and substance use.

Over the past few years, D.C. schools have administered a variety of school climate surveys. Starting in 2016, the D.C. Council passed the Youth Suicide Prevention and School Climate Survey Amendment Act, which required the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to pilot school climate surveys in schools and develop a plan for implementing the surveys in all schools serving grades 6–12—both traditional public schools and public charter schools—beginning in school year 2020–21. A 2020 report from OSSE includes a list of high quality surveys that could be used and next steps that should be taken to support schools in fully administering school climate surveys.

Meanwhile, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) currently administers the Panorama Survey to students, teachers, and staff, and has been doing so since the 2017–18 school year. The survey asks about SEL, school climate, school satisfaction, and engagement. Separately, in school years 2017–18 and 2018–19, Wilson High School individually piloted the School Climate Assessment Instrument (SCAI), which was found to have the highest predictive validity of any school climate survey. Anacostia High School, Beer Elementary School, and Ketcham Elementary School followed suit and administered SCAI in the 2019–20 school year.  

By focusing on the whole child and the entire school experience, the District and states across the nation are on their way to improving learning for every student.

Photo Credit: By Kobe Michael via Pexels

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