School Climate Matters

A classroom in Guipuscoa

Chalk up more research confirming what-we’ve-been-saying-all-along here at Schools & Ecosystems: a school’s learning environment impacts student learning.

In case you don’t know, NYC has been collecting what folks call “school climate” data via surveys administered to teachers, parents, and students since 2007. It’s important information to have about a school–arguably more important, to my mind, than test scores (I believe both should be considered).

Last July, I had quoted Match Education’s Mike Goldstein asking an important question about all this data:

Is anyone aware of scholars and reporters digging deep into this data set?  Is there any other data set in the USA just as good?

I think it’d be hugely productive to identify NYC schools which have made progress in “Total Climate” — and then study why.

Well, Mike, you’ve got your answer.

NYU’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools published a study using NYC’s school climate information that demonstrates that a school’s learning environment not only impacts student learning, but furthermore teacher retention. As Chalkbeat NY’s Alex Zimmerman reports:

Each measure, the report found, is independently linked to decreases in teacher turnover. And gains on two of those measures, high academic expectations and school safety, were directly connected to better scores on state math exams.

The study found that if a school improved from the 50th percentile across the study’s four measures of school climate (leadership, expectations, relationships, and safety) to the 84th percentile, teacher turnover would decline by 25 percent, or 3.8 percentage points.

A similar percentile increase in measures of school safety and high academic expectations alone boosted math scores enough to account for an extra month and a half of instruction. (Improvements in school climate also boosted language arts scores on state tests, but those gains weren’t statistically significant.)

It’s important to note that this study confined its focus to the following aspects of school climate:

  • safety and order
  • leadership and professional development
  • high academic expectations
  • teacher relationships and collaboration

Missing in such an examination (and mostly from these surveys themselves) is a focus on the physical environment of a school. There are questions pertaining to cleanliness and conditions of a school, but as we’ve also been arguing on this blog, the actual design, and the incorporation (or absence) of access to natural light and greenery, colors, furniture, etcetera (all largely subconscious factors), all have an impact on learning and relationships in a school.

If your school is interested in collecting school climate data, the US Department of Education is sharing free surveys and information for collection of data similar to NYC’s. Check it out and share.

Advertisements

Newsflash: School Integration Requires Regulation

“The analysts’ maps provide stark evidence of something many New Yorkers know intuitively: Middle-class families, often white, are happy to live in areas where their neighbors are less well-off and are a different color; this is the very tide of gentrification. But they are less willing to send their children to schools where most of their classmates are likely to be poor and either black or Hispanic.”

–“Segregation Persists in Gentrifying Neighborhoods” in the NY Times

How is Carmen Fariña doing from an “Ecosystems” perspective?

Curved arrow

As Carmen Fariña begins her first full school year as NYC chancellor, now is a good time for us to step back and reflect on how Ms. Fariña is doing from a socio-ecological perspective of leadership.

What might such a perspective of leadership entail? Glad you asked! Looking back through common themes we’ve explored on this blog, some relevant criteria that emerge could be as follows:

A leader who recognizes schools as ecosystems . . . 

  • Values inclusion and diversity (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
  • Consistently observes local conditions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Plays the long game  (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Models active listening (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Applies intensive management (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Displays a willingness to try different things (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Utilizes the principle of obliquity (1, 2, 3)
  • Sweats the small stuff (1, 2, 3)
  • Demonstrates humility (1, 2)
  • Facilitates the confrontation of the brutal facts (1, 2)

We could keep going deeper into the sort of systems and investments such a leader might make, such as a focus on developing collaborative relationships, building in redundancy and robustness, creating greater optionality, investing in initial conditions, and investing in infrastructure, but just in terms of leadership, I think this provides us with a good start.

So by the aforementioned criteria, how is Carmen Fariña doing as a leader of NYC’s hugely complex school system?

Here’s what Ms. Fariña has done thus far in her tenure as chancellor:

  • Made parental engagement one of her top priorities.
  • Focused on elevating the role of the arts and extracurricular activities in schools.
  • Constantly stepped foot into a variety of schools, focusing on concrete feedback to school leaders, rather than needless politicizing.
  • Removed letter grades from school progress reports, making progress reports based primarily upon quality reviews from actual observation and contextual knowledge, rather than decontextualized data points.
  • Implemented a series of pilots throughout the city to test out new initiatives.
  • Demonstrated a vision for the sustainability of the profession by requiring longevity and experience for leadership roles in schools and districts.
  • 2014-15’s Citywide Instructional Expectations establish a continuum from prior CIE’s, rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Continues to push for the positive intent and implementation of the Common Core.
  • Collaborates deliberately and strategically with the teacher’s union.

In sum, Ms. Fariña is shaping up to demonstrate the qualities of a leader who recognizes schools as complex systems and is able and willing to both intensively manage, while simultaneously maintain flexibility and empathy. Her actions and words thus far align well with the criteria of a leader with a socio-ecological mindset.

There may things going on politically behind the scenes at Tweed I don’t know about, and I may not agree with all of her positions, most especially her obvious coziness with Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project and stress on independent reading. But Fariña’s leadership has palpably shifted the tone in NYC, and I’m excited to see how her initiatives will continue to develop and play out, and hopefully she will continue to provide a positive model to other leaders across the country.