Engagement: The Key to Academic Success

A new report from the Gallop Organization, State of America’s Schools, compiles evidence supporting the emphasis of the California Safe and Supportive Schools Project on fostering developmentally supportive schools that are focused on student and staff engagement and building social-emotional competencies.  The data indicate that almost half of students are not engaged in school.

 

In response to engagement-related questions about friendships, a feeling of safety, and praise for good work, researchers classified 55 percent of students as “engaged,” 28 percent as “not engaged,” and 17 percent as “actively disengaged.”  Emotional engagement at school is the noncognitive factor that most directly correlates with academic achievement, the report says.

 

In a 2009 Gallup study of 78,106 students in 80 schools across eight states, researchers found that a 1-percentage-point increase in a student’s score on the engagement index was associated with a 6-point increase in reading achievement and an 8-point increase in math achievement scores.

 

In a finding described by the organization as highly significant, students surveyed in 2013 who said they strongly agreed with two statements—“My school is committed to building the strengths of each student,” and “I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future”—were 30 times more likely to be classified as “engaged” —a key predictor of academic success — than students who strongly disagreed with those statements on the 1-to-5 scale.

 

The report emphasizes that school leaders should not neglect the social and emotional factors that help students thrive.  They are powerful drivers of achievement. 

 

It also recommends a number of strategies to build engagement that Cal-S3 schools have been implementing, including encouraging students to discover and apply their strengths and addressing teacher engagement to help students succeed.

 

Although teachers’ engagement levels at work are similar to those of the general workforce, teachers were the least likely among occupations to say that their opinions counted at work. To build engagement among teachers, the report recommends that principals ask them questions about curriculum, pedagogy, and scheduling, and incorporate their feedback into decision-making. School leaders should also pair engaged administrators and teachers to collaborate and generate enthusiasm for student-centered projects, the report says.

 

The report warns that a broad focus on testing and new standards can lead schools to neglect the individualized needs of students and that “unless U.S. schools can better align learning strategies and objectives with [these often overlooked] fundamental aspects of human nature, they will always struggle to help students achieve their full potential.”

A Model for LCAP: California’s Safe and Supportive Schools

 For California districts struggling to engage in an effective process for developing their LCAP, there are 58 California high schools that can serve as models:  the Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) grantees.  In many respects, the goals of the S3 project align with the priorities of LCAP:  engaging stakeholders in a process of using data to guide development of action plans to improve learning conditions, engagement, and performance.

 Selected by the California Department of Education to receive these grants because of the poor school climates, S3 high schools have worked over the past two years to build their capacity to implement this action-planning process developed by WestEd, called School Climate by Design.  The process begins with a thorough needs assessment using data from the California School Climate, Health, and Learning Surveys (Cal-SCHLS) and other sources, including a Student Listening Circle to incorporate student voice,  to identify their school’s strengths and needs.  Stakeholder school climate teams (including teachers, administrators, students, and parents) then develop specific action plans to address the identified needs, incorporating evidence-based practices, programs, and strategies that meet their goals and objectives.

 This School Climate by Design process is a model for how to develop an effective LCAP, particularly as the content of the Cal-SCHLS surveys and the goals of S3 align so well with the state priorities required to be addressed by the LCAP. It is also a means to help identify local priorities that should be addressed.

 Even more important, S3 administrators and coordinators have the knowledge districts need about what works to improve school climate; foster student, staff, and parent engagement; support their high-need students; and promote the acquisition of social-emotional competencies that students need to succeed in school, including meeting the Common Core State Standards—all priorities of LCAP.

 The model is bearing fruit. After two years of program implementation, the majority of S3 schools have improved not only their climate, as measured by a School Climate Index (SCI), but also student academic achievement, as measured by the state’s Academic Performance Index (API). The average SCI increased 12% (30 points), from 254 to 284, rising from the 10th to the 49th percentile. The average API increased 15 points.  To learn more about these improvements and why they occurred, read these Success Stories.

 Now is the time for S3 grantees to get involved in their district’s LCAP planning process, so it can be informed by their expertise.  Other districts can identify a neighboring S3 school from the Cal-S3 website (CaliforniaS3.wested.org).  The website also contains resources to help in LCAP planning and development, including a guidebook on using Cal-SCHLS data to improve school climate and a series of What Works Briefs that align with the major domains of school climate and LCAP priorities.  For more information about the School Climate by Design process, email schoolclimate@wested.org.

 

School Climate and Substance Use Prevention: Will LCAP Help Reduce Student Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drug Use?

A series of research studies confirms that student substance use is intimately related to school climate. This suggests that the new requirement that every school district in California adopt a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) that includes school climate improvement as a priority, has the potential to reduce adolescent substance use. This is one of those rare opportunities when multiple benefits to learning, health, and well-being may result, warranting a closer look at the implications of this research for LCAP development as well as substance use prevention.

Experimental research shows that an improved school social environment—including student participation in school, relationships, and a positive school ethos—predicts reductions in student substance use, according to Adam Fletcher and colleagues (2008).  They also found that school-level and individual-level observational studies consistently reported that disengagement and poor teacher–student relationships were associated with drug use and other risky health behaviors.  (A reading list of this research is provided below).

In recent studies, Sharon Sznitman and colleagues (2012) found that both male and female students in schools with positive climates reported lower levels of substance use.  In a second study by Sznitman and Daniel Romer (2014), perceived positive school climate (as measured by level of respect, clarity of rules, and problem management) was associated with a reduction in cigarette and marijuana initiation and a reduction in the frequency of cigarette use among high school students at 1-year follow-up.  In contrast, student drug testing was not associated with any changes in substance use and was deemed a less promising prevention strategy than school climate. In fact, the results showed that the only case where drug testing did have a negative association with student drug use was in schools with a positive school climate (and then only for female students), raising the possibility that the success of drug testing is contingent on positive school climate.

Consistent with these findings, Maria LaRusso and colleagues (2008) reported that adolescents who had higher teacher support and regard for student perspectives in their high schools were more likely to see their schools as having respectful climates and healthy norms of drug use, which was associated with lower levels of personal drug use. Students in such schools also reported greater social belonging and fewer symptoms of depression.

Among a sample of Northern Ireland youth, school-climate factors assessed at age 13 or 14 were related to less normative substance use at age 15 or 16 among a sample of Northern Ireland youth.  Positive teacher-student relationships and lower levels of fighting at school reduced the risk of daily smoking, weekly drunkenness, and weekly marijuana use. School disengagement increased the likelihood of cigarette and marijuana use among females (Perra et al., 2012).

There may be limits to the influence of school climate on substance use depending on the type and level of use and the age of the user.  Sznitman and Romer found that a positive school climate was not significantly associated with reductions in the initiation of alcohol use or with the frequency of alcohol or marijuana use, as measured by the number of days consumed in the past 30 days.  The authors speculate that perceived positive school climate may have weaker prevention effects with behavior that is viewed as normative in this age group, as prevalence surveys indicate is the case today with alcohol among high school students. Yet Perra and colleagues found positive associations for weekly drunkenness and marijuana use.  The difference in these findings may reflect that high school students consider regular but moderate drinking more normative than drunkenness.

The lack of a significant association between school climate and frequency of both marijuana or alcohol use in the Sznitman study does indicate that additional programs may be needed to target youth who are heavy users.  This is consistent with WestEd’s school climate model calling for implementing a Multi-Tiered System of Supports that include not only developmental supports and protective-factor strategies for all students but intervention programs such as student assistance and referral to treatment targeting students that fall through the cracks.

Even with these uncertainties, this research supports that school climate may have far reaching positive effects on the health as well as academic performance of youth. The potential adverse consequences of poor school climates, in turn, warrant more attention. School climate alone is not sufficient as a prevention strategy, but minimally it holds promise as an effective complement to other drug prevention efforts. A topic warranting further research is whether the positive effect of school climate on substance use may be greater in middle school, when even substance use is less normative than in high schools.

How does school climate influence young people’s drug use?  According to social control theory, as Sznitman and Romer observe, students who are attached to schools refrain from substance use (and other risk behaviors) because they internalize the prosocial expectations and norms encouraged by schools (Catalano et al., 2004; Hirschi, 1969; Libbey, 2004).  Fostering a positive school climate has protective-factor value as a drug prevention strategy (Blum & Libbey, 2004; Flay et al., 2004; Hawkins et al., 2001; Henry & Slater, 2007; Libbey, 2004; Resnick et al. 1997; Simons-Morton et al. 1999).  Research further underscores that feelings of attachment, school connectedness, and learning engagement are related to school climates that foster positive, respectful relationships between and among staff and students, a sense of physical and emotional safety, and provide supports that meet the needs of the whole child—developmental, social emotional, health, and academic.

Including school climate and pupil engagement in school accountability systems, as with the LCAP, may reduce student substance use—at least in regard to marijuana, cigarettes, and drunkenness—if districts make implementation of these positive conditions and student supports central to their LCAP goals. The strategies being implemented by California’s Safe and Supportive Schools grantees provide a roadmap for all districts to model in their LCAP development.

Anecdotal evidence indicates a pronounced retention in school prevention efforts in recent years.  The ending of federal Title IV (Safe and Drug Free Schools and Community Program), coupled with the pressure on schools to improve test scores and reduce spending, have left many California schools without strong support for their prevention efforts.

The good news is that the research reviewed here holds out the promise that an effective LCAP that makes improving school climate and pupil engagement central goals will help address this program gap. Prevention stakeholders need to become actively involved in LCAP development efforts in their school districts to ensure that this occurs. In the past, too little attention has been paid to school climate as a prevention strategy.

Readings

Blum, R. W., & Libbey, H. P. (2004). Executive summary: School Connectedness – Strengthening Health and Education Outcomes for Teenagers. Journal of School Health, 74, 231–232.

Booth, J. A., Farrell, A., & Varano, S. P. (2008). Social control, serious delinquency, and risky behavior: A gendered analysis. Crime & Delinquency, 54, 423–456.

Catalano, R. F., Haggerty, K. P., Oesterle, S., Fleming, C. B., & Hawkins,J. D. (2004). The importance of bonding to school for healthy development: Findings from the Social Development Research Group. Journal of School Health, 74, 252–261.

Flay, B. R., Graumlich, S., Segawa, E., Burns, J. L., & Holliday, M. Y. (2004). Effects of 2 prevention programs on high-risk behaviors among African American youth: A randomized trial. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 158, 377–384.

Fletcher, A., Bonell, C., & Hargreaves, J. (2008). School effects on young people’s drug use: A systematic review of intervention and observational studies. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42, 209–220.

Hawkins, J. D., Guo, J., Hill, K. G., Battin-Pearson, S., & Abbott, R. D. (2001). Long-term effects of the Seattle Social Development intervention on school bonding trajectories. Applied Developmental Science, 5, 225–236.

Henry, K. L., & Slater, M. D. (2007). The contextual effect of school attachment on young adolescents’ alcohol use. Journal of School Health, 77, 67–74.

Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

LaRusso, M. D., Romer, D., & Selman, R. L. (2008). Teachers as builders of respectful school climates: Implications for adolescent drug use norms and depressive symptoms in high school. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37, 386–398.

Libbey, H. P. (2004). Measuring student relationships to school: Attachment, bonding, connectedness, and engagement. Journal of School Health, 74, 274–283.

Perra, O., Fletcher, A., Bonell, C., Higgins, K., & McCrystal, P. (2012). School-related predictors of smoking, drinking and drug use: Evidence from the Belfast Youth Development Study. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 315–324.

Resnick, M. D., et al. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. Journal of the American Medical Association, 278, 823–832.

Samdal, O., Wold, B., Klepf, K. I., & Kannas, L. (2000). Students’ perception of school and their smoking and alcohol use: A cross-national study. Addiction Research & Theory, 8, 141–167.

Simons-Morton, B. G., Crump, A. D., Haynie, D. L., & Saylor, K. E. (1999). Student-school bonding and adolescent problem behavior. Health Education Research, 14, 99–107.

Sznitman, S. R., Dunlop, S. M., Nalkur, P., Khurana, A., & Romer, D. (2012). Student drug testing in the context of positive and negative school climates: Results from a national survey. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 41, 146–155.

Sznitman, S. R., Kolobov, T., Bogt, T. T., Kuntsche, E., Walsh, S. D., Boniel-Nissim, M., & Harel-Fisch, Y. (2013). Exploring substance use normalization among adolescents: A multilevel study in 35 countries. Social Science & Medicine, 97, 143–151.

Sznitman, S. R. & Romer, D. (2014). Student drug testing and positive school climates: Testing the relation between two school characteristics and drug use behavior in a longitudinal study. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 75, 65-73.

Hearts and Hands

This blog post is being published simultaneously on the CTE Central Blog. Co-authored by Tom Ross.

When states reduce funding for CTE—like here in California—Career Technical Education people are bewildered. In light of all the attention given to career and continuing education—as well as the need for skilled workers—this would seem to be the last place to cut funds.

The school climate people are concerned as well.

Knowledge and skills aren’t learned in a vacuum. As students focus on their own interests and aptitudes—through career technical education—they are developing the non-cognitive skills, the mindsets (or mindfulness), and dispositions (see slide 3 here as well) that will make them both college and career ready. In the SCANS Report (2000) employers identified the non-cognitive skills that they find to be foundational to their needs; these include responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, self-management, integrity, and honesty.  These are skills that may be learned in school but not explicitly taught. They come from that intangible thing called school climate.

School climate refers to the quality and character of school life, based on patterns of people’s experiences of school life, and reflects the norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching, learning and leadership practices, and organizational structures of a school. Schools with good climate provide healthy, positive learning environments where students feel safe and respected and can grow and reach for goals they feel are meaningful to them and relevant in the real world. Ideally, schools provide students a safe space in which to learn, make mistakes, try new things, and develop both their knowledge and skills with the support of grownups who care about them.

Children often enter school feeling insecure, nervous, alone, and unsure of what to expect and what’s expected of them. Interventions and strategies that support positive school climate can make their experiences a lot less stressful.

What’s this got to do with career technical education? Well, it turns out that CTE is a powerful school climate tool – providing students a strong connection to their schools, creating relevance for their educations, and allowing educators opportunities to see their students in a whole new light. We often see CTE, academics, and school climate as disparate things, inhabiting different worlds of thought, in separate silos. In a healthy and positive learning environment (school climate), CTE and academics work together.

 Link Crew (in yellow) at El Capitan High School, Lakeside, CA

Career Technical Education prepares students for the real world of work and careers by teaching them workplace competencies and making academic content accessible to students in a hands-on context.

In order for students to want to go to and stay in school—and keep them from dropping out—there has to be something in it for them. It needs to engage them.  They need to want to learn and to come to school (attendance is a major indicator in school climate evaluations).

Nothing is more engaging for students of all ages than a lesson that puts something new in their hands and shows them how to use it, a skill that is useful and that helps them create something or solve a problem or provides training they can build on. And it should be something they enjoy doing and that they find to be relevant in the world.

And nothing is more engaging for teachers than students who are learning and growing; students who take the lead and apply what they have learned to new situations and problems. When students become leaders, they are engaged.

 

 Camp LEAD at Grossmont Union High School District

Leadership programs—often part of a character education program—are a major part of school climate. Mt. Miguel and El Capitan High Schools (in the Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego County), for example, offer programs like Camp Lead and Listening Circles as well as Link Crew. These leadership activities promote meaningful, rigorous learning, personal and social growth, and civic responsibility as well as career development. (The School Climate Index for both schools has improved annually since 2011.)

Which came first, school climate or student engagement? It doesn’t matter, as long as they are connected.

Student engagement occurs when “students make a psychological investment in learning. They try hard to learn what school offers. They take pride not simply in earning the formal indicators of success [grades], but in understanding the material and incorporating or internalizing it in their lives.”

“Along with mastery and application of essential content as typically prescribed and monitored in state standards, assessments, and accountability systems, it is necessary that students cultivate higher-order cognitive and meta-cognitive skills that allow them to engage in meaningful interaction with the world around them.” (From Knowledge, Skills, and Dispositions, CCSSO, 2012)

“For children to learn to their full potential, and for us to make inroads in reducing dropout rates, students need to feel safe at, supported by, and connected to their schools. School climate is very much connected to student success.” Tom Torlakson, California Superintendent of Public Instruction (from CA Safe and Supportive Schools).

Heads, hearts and hands. Engaged students use their heads. Students who are not engaged “sit on their hands.” We engage them with “hands-on” activities. Engaged students “put their heart” into their work.

College of the Canyons’ Summer Institute (Photo courtesy of the Santa Clarita Valley Signal)

 Are your students engaged? Are they putting their hearts as well as their hands into their work? Let us know how you are integrating CTE and school climate in your school.

 

 

S3 Symposium 2013

The week before Thanksgiving is a busy time for many, as it heralds the start of the holiday season, and preparations for Thanksgiving gatherings are well under way. In Sacramento, however, the nearly 300 school and district staff, and school community stakeholders involved in California’s Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) program were busy for a very different reason – they were attending and participating in the 2013 S3 Symposium.

The first S3 Symposium took place in 2012 in Southern California, so the northern part of the state got to play host this time around. Representatives from all 58 S3 schools traveled to the Sheraton Grand in Sacramento for the event, that focused on idea-sharing and planning for sustainability. Here are some of the highlights:

Grantees participated in a poster session, featuring success stories from their schools’ programs.

Symposium attendees viewing posters from S3 school sites.

 

The posters were mounted for display at the evening welcome reception, and stayed up for the remainder of the Symposium, in order to allow participants plenty of time to peruse them for information and ideas.

S3 Grantee Posters from the 2013 Symposium.

 

In the plenary sessions, participants were treated to a range of activities, from energizing keynote speakers such as William Preble…

William Preble delivers the keynote address on the first full day of the Symposium.

 

…to an inspiring and engaging student panel from a local S3 school.

The student panel gets introduced by a moderator.

 

Several “master classes” (2.5 hour long sessions) were offered providing in-depth topic discussions and skills development…

Alison Adler leads a Master Class entitled “Moving all Staff Toward a Single School Culture.”

 

…along with over a dozen 75 minute workshops on school climate-related topics.

Participants engage in a discussion during a workshop.

 

Grantees were offered further opportunities to share their experiences, ideas, and questions in Ignite Talks and “Job-a-like” discussion sessions.

Participant shares out information from a Job-A-Like discussion with the full group.

 

WestEd, Duerr Evaluation, Center for Applied Research Solutions (CARS), and California Department of Education staff were on hand through it all, coordinating, organizing, and facilitating the Symposium from start to end.

Symposium staff meet to review the following day’s assignments.

 

Overall, those in attendance agreed that the event was a huge success.

Resources such as slides from presentations, photographs of posters, and other program materials will be made available shortly on the California S3 website.

Many thanks to all those who helped make this event such a great one, including our speakers, presenters, attendees, and event organizers.

Student Voice, School Climate, and the Local Control Funding Formula

In school after school participating in the Safe and Supportive School Projects in California, Louisiana, and South Carolina, we at WestEd have been facilitators and witnesses to the power that student voice brings to improving school climate and academic achievement. Listening to what students have to say can make a huge difference in the success of school improvement efforts. In a Commentary in EdSource, 11th-grade Oakland High School student Cindy Andrade emphasizes the importance of incorporating student voice as the State Board develops the regulations for the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the need to include student engagement and school climate in the priorities required by the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP). Local school boards should also be listening to what their students, staff, and parents have to say about their schools through their Cal-SCHLS data and should directly involve them in developing an LCAP that effectively addresses local needs.

Here’s what Andrade writes about why this is important and what students want. She begins with a depressing summary of conditions in Oakland schools: overcrowding, outdated computers, damaged textbooks, and insufficient resources, AP classes, counselors, and college prep support to help students be successful.  “In other words,” she asks, “how can you expect us to succeed when we’re being set up to fail?”  She then stresses the importance of asking students themselves how LCFF money should be spent and calls for regulations that prioritize equity, meeting the needs of high-need students, and accountability – not only for achievement but for student engagement, school climate, and other LCAP priorities.

“Without real student and community input into how funding is distributed and spent, we will not be able to hold our districts and schools accountable to us. School districts across California must remember that they are working for us, the students, and that equity must be defined by what we need. After all, their local spending decisions affect our futures…. My peers and I want regulations that require school districts to spend more on the highest-need students; provide more services than they are already providing for these students, and show how this investment is working through increases in achievement and in all the other state priorities, including parent and student engagement and improving school climate. This should be the only option!”

School Climate and the Truancy Crisis

A report from the California Attorney General on the “crisis” of elementary school truancy and absenteeism highlights an important problem that has long-term negative effects in increasing the likelihood of student academic failure and dropping out of school, and that annually costs schools $1.5 billion in funding tied to attendance. The report calls for schools to become more aggressive and accountable about truancy, but the evidence is equally strong that creating more supportive and engaging school climates must be part of the solution to help address the underlying causes.

The Harris report calls for more school and family accountability, better systems of tracking attendance and truant students, more intense interventions by public officials including home visits after a student’s first unexcused absence, more involvement by social-service agencies, and a commitment, if necessary, by district attorneys to prosecute parents of chronically truant kids.

In a critique of the report based on the experience gained struggling with truancy while teaching for five years in a very low-income urban community, Ellie Herman emphasizes that truancy is just a symptom of the larger core problem of poverty and its affects on families. She calls it “delusional to think that ‘accountability’…will solve the problem of the large number of children in this city whose families are in crisis.” Every chronic truant “came from a home in chaos.” In a country that has the second-highest rate of child poverty in the developed world and a state that has cut services and education funding to the bone, we need to stop pretending that the truancy problem can be fixed if we “simply demand accountability,” and start having a “real and painful conversation,” about how to address the underlying problem.

One place to start is promoting schools that provide the developmental supports that help mitigate the effects of poverty, connect students with school, and engage them in learning. Steven Greenhut writes: “Truancy isn’t an imaginary problem, but it might be less severe if officials worried more about what happens once kids get into the classroom and less about keeping seats filled to keep the money flowing.” Underlying truancy, his article asserts, lies “bored kids and kids who have been failed by the system,” cutbacks in music and art programs, and persistent bullying and lack of safety. What we need, he concludes, is for more kids to want to go to school.

The role of school climate arguably is reflected in the increases in truancy rates that occur as children move through the school system. California Healthy Kids Survey data (2009-11 state report) reveals that the percentage of secondary students that skip school or cut class more than twice in the past twelve months rises from 8% in 7th grade to 29% in 11th. Across these same grades, school safety, connectedness, and supports — fundamental indicators of the quality of the school climate — all decline.

Another place to start to address the problem is to make better use of CHKS data to understand, raise awareness about, and address the needs of truants and the factors that influence chronic absenteeism. The survey asks students (1) how many times in the past 12 month they skipped school or cut classes; and (2) the reasons they miss school in the past 30 days. These reasons include illness, depression, concerns about safety, work and family obligations, and lack of interest in school. Schools can request a report that will provide only the survey results for the population that reports frequently skipping school.

Common Core State Standards, School Climate, and Social-Emotional Learning

By Svetlana Darche, Greg Austin, & Adam Voight

As California and the nation are adopting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), there is increasing recognition that success in meeting the standards will be closely intertwined with school climate and student social-emotional learning, adding to the value of the Healthy Kids Survey data for guiding CCSS implementation.

First, research shows that students’ academic attainment, the heart of the CCSS, is higher in the presence of positive conditions for learning.   That is, students perform better in safe, supportive, and engaging school climates. This point was demonstrated in WestEd’s recent study that showed dramatically more positive climates in schools that outperform academic predictions compared with other schools.

It is not enough to just improve curriculum and instruction to teach CCSS content.  We also need to create more positive environments that encourage students to attend school, ready them to learn, and motivate them to achieve.  Otherwise, the very purpose of the CCSS — to foster more college, career, and life readiness among our youth — will not be fulfilled.  Moreover, we will likely see a reoccurrence of the same phenomenon we have seen in past standardized tests:  immediate improvements in test scores followed by a leveling off.

Second, the rigor, depth of knowledge and performance tasks required for success in attaining the CCSS suggest that educators must provide not only an array of learning experiences that support deep understanding but also the conditions that support students’ development of many competencies that undergird academic attainment. Students will have to employ a number of specific social-emotional and other “noncognitive” skills in order to attain CCSS academic standards. The CCSS represent a set of grade-level competencies that all students are expected to attain in English Language Arts and mathematics. The standards are aligned with expectations for college and work. One standard explicitly calls for “rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills,” and also included among the standards are critical thinking, communication skills, problem solving, and persistence.

To a larger degree than previous standards, the CCSS assessments include complex tasks that require problem-solving skills. Students will have to be able to take initiative, work collaboratively, communicate, and persist, just as they do to get good grades.  Students who lack these skills will get a “double whammy” — they will face tougher content and will have to do so without the requisite tools — like being asked to climb a higher mountain, but in flip flops instead of boots (they fail the climb and end up with blistered feet and bad memories, reluctant to take on the next hike).

Like academic performance, student social-emotional learning is greater in positive school climates.  Researchers, including those at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), have consistently found that while there are many strategies for teaching social-emotional competencies, they are not fully learned unless SEL instruction occurs within the context of a school climate that nurtures those skills and gives youth the opportunities to see them modeled by adults and to apply them in practice in the day-to-day world of the school.

The research underlying the CHKS indicates that school environments that focus on meeting the basic developmental needs of youth and providing the supports linked to resilience (e.g., caring adult relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for meaningful participation) help foster those social-emotional competencies and personal strengths that youth will need to succeed in the CCSS.  Thus the CHKS is an important tool for schools for determining their progress in fostering positive school climates and SEL that will be required to, in turn, foster success.  Moreover, the improvements that have been made to the CHKS this year — expanding the indicators of school climate and adding a supplemental Social and Emotional Health Module —have greatly enhanced its value to that end.

The CORE District Waiver, School Climate, and the Improvement of School Accountability Measures

As the school year begins, one of the most buzz-generating developments in the state is the US Department of Education’s award of the one-year NCLB waiver to the eight school districts partnering as the California Office to Reform Education or CORE and their plan to jointly implement the “radical idea” of a School Quality Improvement System (SQIS) and Index consisting of indicators of not only academic factors but also school climate/culture and student social-emotional health.  Using indicators from all three domains will constitute a major shift in how schools will be held accountable.  I’d like to think that this holistic approach to school improvement and accountability was an important factor in this award.

As the CORE proposal states: “The School Quality Improvement System is designed with the recognition that the federal expectations for meeting students’ needs have been too narrow for too long. LEA’s have too often been chasing success in a system that does not define success in a comprehensive or rigorous way….Our SQIS recognizes the importance of and values not only academic preparedness but also multiple measures of student success in students’ social-emotional development and the critical role of a school’s culture and climate…Success in the social-emotional and school culture and climate domains do not operate independent of success in the academic domain.”

The School Quality Improvement Index, forty percent of which will be based on the two nonacademic domains, will be used to measure and monitor success. It will also provide feedback on areas of strength and areas needing improvement in support of college- and career-readiness.

While the prospect of these eight districts, who serve about one-sixth of the state’s enrollment, setting up their own accountability system has generated controversy, the proposal provides a model for improving accountability systems for the state.  Other districts can emulate it as part of their Local Control and Accountability Plans, which require measuring school climate as a state priority. The CORE efforts will provide valuable information to guide these efforts.

Education Week blogger Michele McNeil has raised questions about the effect of a school-grading system that puts 40 percent of a school’s grade on nonacademic factors, how they will go about measuring them, and whether the system can correctly identify the highest-and lowest-performing schools.  The CORE districts already have available to them a system for providing the data in the California School Climate, Health, and Learning Surveys (Cal-SCHLS).  The value of the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS) component in meeting these needs has been increased by several improvements in 2013-14, including an expanded supplementary School Climate Module and a new Social Emotional Health Module.

The current CHKS indicators, which have been used to create a School Climate Index, have further been found to clearly differentiate between low- and high-performing schools in the recent “Beating the Odds” study.  School climate was significantly more positive in schools that consistently performed better on STAR tests than would be predicted based on their student demographics, and it was significantly poorer in schools that consistently underperform.

 

The Racial School Climate Gap Between and Within Schools

This post was co-authored by Greg Austin and Adam Voight.

By most any measure of academic achievement, African American, American Indian, and Hispanic students in California overall perform significantly worse than their Asian and White peers. This racial/ethnic achievement gap (which we’ll simply refer to as a racial gap), persists even after socioeconomic conditions (poverty) are taken into consideration and continues to confound educational researchers and practitioners.  After decades of initiatives designed to redress this inequity, what are educators to do?

A series of recent empirical studies by WestEd has collectively shown not only the dimension of this achievement gap among California students but also that there is a related Racial School Climate Gap. Racial differences in students’ experience of school safety, supportiveness, and connectedness may help explain group differences in achievement.

One dimension of the problem is that African American and Hispanic students systematically attend schools that are lower performing, are less safe and supportive, and have lower levels of student connectedness than the schools attended by their White and Asian peers. This is part of the larger problem of inequalities in funding and resources among California schools. There is work to be done at the state and district levels to address disparities in achievement, resources, and learning conditions between schools.

The most novel finding, however, is that differences within schools may be even more important in explaining the achievement and climate gaps than differences between schools. Racial gaps in achievement and indicators of school climate within schools contributed more to both overall gaps among California students than the fact that White and Asian students attend different schools than African American and Hispanic students.

Consider the following illustration: Two students attend Middle School X. One is Hispanic and one is White. Based on this finding, one would expect that the Hispanic student would have lower test scores and grades and would report lower levels of perceived safety, support, and connectedness, despite access to the same facilities, resources, administration, teachers, and staff.

This was, in fact, a general finding across all California schools. African-American and Hispanic students have less positive learning conditions and outcomes than their White and Asian peers within the same school. Something is happening to foster this inequality internally.  It is not exactly clear why this is so, but the implication is that school administrators and staff are in a position to remedy this gap through their building-level policies and practices.

As we have written in previous blogs, one reason why more safe, developmentally supportive, and engaging school conditions may promote academic achievement is that they serve as protective factors that reduce the risk factors in the world outside the school.  These supports may be especially important in helping to mitigate the many out-of-school barriers to learning that racial/ethnic minority students face because of their higher rates of poverty.

These findings suggest that reducing racial disparities in students’ experience of school climate—both between and within schools—may result in reduced racial disparities in achievement. To truly support this causal argument requires further research. Absent this empirical evidence, however, there is still a clear conceptual argument that improving school climate for African American, Hispanic, and American Indian students may be an engine for reducing the achievement gap.  Moreover, that the disparities were greater within than between schools further suggests that most of the work needs to happen at the level of the policies and practices of individual schools.  This needs to begin with learning more about how and why disadvantaged minorities do not have the same school experience as their peers within the same campus.

Another implication of these findings for closing the achievement gap is the importance of schools regularly assessing and monitoring their school climate as experienced by different racial/ethnic groups, using such tools as the Cal-SCHLS surveys.

For more information on this and related topics, take a look at following California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS) Factsheets (in particular #13):

And for analyses on this topic from the perspective of school staff, you may also want to check out the following California School Climate Survey (CSCS) Factsheets: