The Accountability Plateau, Mark Schneider’s report on the correlations between accountability and student achievement has implications for proponents of developing positive school climates as a strategy for school improvement.
In his report, Schneider, a former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, argues that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 contributed to a substantial increase in students’ math skills on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in the initial years after NCLB took hold. However, by 2005 there was a leveling off of these student gains. Similarly, in Texas, Florida, and other states, rapid gains in test scores were made after the introduction of high-stakes testing programs, but then scores stagnated.
Schneider attributes the initial NAEP gains, at least partly, to the shock of NCLB’s testing-and-sanctioning policies. He suggests that bold new education policies — a “new shock” to the system — are needed to unleash a fresh wave of academic progress to counter this stagnation. The most likely candidates he sees are the Common Core State Standards and efforts to create new measures of teacher performance.
I propose an alternative recommendation for prompting renewed academic progress: devote resources to improving school climate. The short-term test-score gains described in Schneider’s paper were likely not sustained because too little attention was directed toward creating positive school climates that support and engage students, teachers, and parents in learning. Because of a lack of attention to school climate issues, too many students were not able to fully benefit from the improvements in curriculum and instruction that resulted from NCLB.
Central to the Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) project in California, and the school climate movement in general, is helping schools implement changes in how they teach, not just what they teach. Improving student educational success must be grounded in a deep understanding of the type of environment students require to be ready and engaged to learn every day, and how the environments in which they live and learn affect their education. The work of the S3 project includes fostering school–community collaboration to address the non-cognitive (health, psychosocial, behavioral) barriers to learning that challenge so many students, particularly in high-poverty, low-performing schools.
A positive school climate is the foundation for sustainable academic improvement and test-score gains, and systemic school reform.