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:

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