An Individual is Not the Climate

Wow, it’s November already.  That means that many school districts are starting to think about their school site climate surveys.  As I work with district staff to develop and customize these surveys for their particular needs, I’m finding that a critical conversation revolves around the purpose of a climate survey.

I mentioned in a previous post that a common mistake is trying to measure everything in a very detailed fashion, as opposed to being satisfied with broad indicators of the education environment.  Another misconception is that the climate survey is an evaluative tool.  Attempts to make the climate survey into an evaluation tool involve an attempt either to rate specific individuals or to use the survey as a type of self-assessment.

Let’s consider the climate survey as an evaluation of individuals.  When this occurs, individuals within the school — typically the principal, assistant principals and/or guidance counselors — are identified by name.  Questions are asked about how well the named individual performs various aspects of the position; i.e., how well does Assistant Principal Jones effectively address disciplinary problems?  While this approach may provide feedback on perceptions of the individual’s performance, it results in two possible outcomes that are counter to the purposes of a climate survey.

First, when rating an individual, rather than the broader climate, ratings may be influenced by personal feelings toward that person.  For example, Assistant Principal Jones may be well-liked and therefore rated highly, despite rampant student behavior problems.

Second, individual ratings run counter to the goal of a climate survey, which is to develop trust and cooperation among the school’s stakeholders.  If individuals are rated poorly, a natural reaction is for them to become defensive.  And defensive posturing stifles dialogue, reducing the possibility of future cooperation and improvement.

Now let’s consider self-assessment questions and their problems for a survey.  These items are usually stated in an “I” format.  Not all “I” questions are inappropriate for a climate survey, but these items can be problematic when they address positive behaviors that are expected of the respondent.  Because people want to appear positive, they will report that they do everything that they “should” do.  For example, what teacher would not agree with, “I help my students when they have trouble in my class”?  Virtually everyone will agree with these types of questions, regardless of whether they actually do the described behavior.

The results are unrealistically high ratings that provide no useful information for improving the school climate.

The bottom line is that climate survey items should avoid ratings of individuals, either singled out in the evaluative sense or in the self-assessment sense.  I’ll speak in a future post about appropriate methods for obtaining and using these more individualized types of ratings.

Author: Dr. Russ

Senior Director of Research

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