Does School Climate = Student Achievement?

A steady stream of new research is confirming what common sense has told us all along: school conditions matter for student achievement.

study released earlier this month on New York City schools, found that positive school climate has a direct link to decreases in teacher turnover and increases in student performance on state math exams. Matthew Kraft, the lead author of the study, states, “Moving the needle on student achievement at scale is a very difficult thing to do. What we’ve shown [with this study] is a potential avenue where that sustained investment [in school climate] is likely to pay off.”

These findings support what we have seen at schools implementing the Building Assets, Reducing Risks (BARR) school improvement model. As a recent Education Week article notes, BARR uses eight research-based strategies that are designed to strengthen positive, intentional relationships throughout a school building. Schools implementing BARR adapt their daily schedule to ensure that teachers have the chance to share information on a common set of students. The BARR system also ensures that there is time each week for a social and emotional learning (SEL) focus, which helps teachers identify strengths in their students and provides students a glimpse of the human side of their teachers. This small, relationship building action has proven to have positive impacts for students, teachers, and schools.

It’s not only NYC and BARR. Martin West of Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research (CEPR), showed similar findings in an analysis of data from the California CORE Districts, a consortium of nine districts that serve over one million students. CORE District schools operate under a federal waiver that allows them to include non-academic measures in their school accountability systems and performance ratings. After reviewing data from a field test involving 450,000 students in grades 3–12, which measured four key social-emotional skills, West confirms that these skills have the ability to predict success in school and life.

BARR’s own research, supported through a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant, involved a randomized controlled trial (RCT) at Hemet High School, a large school in southern California where 74% of the students qualify for free-and-reduced-lunch and 58% are minority students. The RCT demonstrated BARR produced significant improvements in course credits earned, grade point averages, and standardized test scores for BARR students as compared to their control counterparts.

The only thing that changed at Hemet High was the quality of the relationships between teachers and students, between students and their peers, and between teachers and their colleagues. Same students. Same teachers. Better results.

These results are especially interesting in light of the fact that the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, provides states with significant flexibility to design new accountability systems that align with their vision of school success. While current accountability systems focus primarily on standardized test scores, the new systems can include multiple measures and must include at least one ‘non-academic’ factor, such as SEL competencies, student engagement, or school climate. The CORE District schools hope to serve as a national model as states take steps to overhaul their accountability systems for the beginning of the 2017–2018 school year.

There is a perfect storm on the horizon for those in the education reform world who recognize the numerous non-academic factors that can promote or hinder students’ learning. Every day, more evidence points to the connection between school learning environments and academic success. At the same time, states have been given the freedom and mandate to create new accountability systems that provide a more nuanced, holistic picture of how students and schools are performing. It’s an alignment that could have a lasting impact on how we define success in schools across the country.