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.


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