The Climate Survey — Accident of Evolution or Adaptive Tool?

It is no secret that the climate of a school directly impacts how well teachers teach and students learn.  If the climate is one in which students and teachers are concerned about their safety, lack necessary equipment, or are otherwise uncomfortable, their focus will be on those concerns rather than on academic achievement.  When school leaders want to address those types of issues, they need to understand how staff and students experience the school climate.

Typically, school administrators go about studying the school climate by conducting a CLIMATE SURVEY. Yes, bold and caps are warranted because this is a monster survey. It includes a large number of questions meant to address various details and nuances specific to the school climate. It evolves by committee, with district administrators designing it with input from school staff and parents.  Problems tend to arise because everyone on the committee wants to measure everything.  Parts of other surveys, such as safety or engagement, often find their way into the climate survey.  The result is a survey covering a swath of topics a mile wide and a level of detail a mile deep.

Who wants to take a survey like that?  Respondents get fatigued and drop out before finishing, while potential respondents don’t even try after hearing how long and confusing the survey is.  Naturally, the response rate ends up being disappointingly low, and district administrators don’t get the information they need.

Fortunately, there is a better way. The K12 Insight staff has created an “adaptive” climate survey.  With this approach, we do not ask everyone to answer every single question.  Instead, there is a set of core questions that address the broad areas of school climate like academic preparation, safety, student support, etc.  There is one question for each of these core items, and each respondent answers up to 8 core questions.  Districts then use these responses to track school climate quality from year-to-year.  If respondents give low ratings in one of these areas, the survey will adapt, asking additional questions to probe more deeply into specific areas.  For instance, if a staff member indicates that safety is an issue, additional questions are presented to understand the reasons for that perception.  This approach drastically reduces the length of a climate survey, while providing essential data to track information relevant to improvement efforts.

There is a trade-off with this approach. Since survey participants do not answer all possible questions, some detail is lost. The benefit, however, is that participation will be higher because the survey is more manageable.  And increased survey participation helps boost parents and broader community engagement in the overall district dialogue.

Author: Dr. Russ

Senior Director of Research

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