Want the True Measure of School Climate? Go Beyond the Survey

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released a new guide designed to help school leaders measure and manage school climate.

The guide represents one of the first federal endorsements of school climate as a measure of school success since the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law late last year. Moving to expand the scope of student and school performance beyond standardized tests, education officials, through ESSA, now require schools to consider a mix of non-academic indicators, such as school climate (or overall school experience) and student engagement.

“All students deserve schools that work to ensure safe and supportive school climates in which they can reach their full potential,” said James Cole Jr., general counsel, delegated the duties of deputy secretary of education, in a release about the guide and associated resources.

The guide comes on the heels of new research out of New York City that draws a bright line between a healthy school climate and student and teacher success.

ED’s resource package includes guidance for five key actions required to measure school climate: planning; stakeholder engagement; collecting, analyzing, and reporting school climate data; implementing interventions; and consistent evaluation and monitoring.

The best measure of climate
One of the surest ways to measure school climate is through a well thought-out survey for the entire community, be it students, parents, teachers, or staff members. ED offers several resources and templates to help get the ball rolling. But, as those who have done this work for years understand, an effective climate survey requires more than a prewritten bank of questions.

Dr. Stephan Knobloch, senior vice president of research and advisory services at K12 Insight and former director of research for the Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, highlights four critical differences between intelligent, custom-designed surveys and “canned” survey templates.

  • “Each school and district is different. A survey must reflect the issues and unique needs of their school community,” Knobloch says. Rather than using a “cookie-cutter” survey template.
    Pro tip: Consider consulting academic researchers to develop a sound, research-based school climate survey that speaks to the specific needs and challenges of your community.
  • The questions you choose to ask are important—but so is how you ask them. Are your survey questions clear? Do answer options cover the full range of possible answers?
    Pro tip: Don’t leave room for interpretation. Make sure the wording and dialect you choose is reflective of your community’s natural way of speaking. Be sure to customize each survey to ensure that every question resonates and is understood by your stakeholders.
  • Surveys aren’t just about gathering information; they’re about stakeholder collaboration. The experience of taking the survey is as critical as the data you collect. Give serious thought to how to promote and administer the survey to your community.
    Pro tip: Your next climate survey is only as good as the number of responses it receives. Make sure you do the research and planning up front to ensure the highest-possible response rate.
  • When the survey concludes, make sure you have a clear plan in place for how to parse the data and interpret the results. Be sure to report survey results to those who participated and include them in future discussions.
    Pro tip: Survey findings provide answers to critical questions. But your success depends on how equipped you are to interpret and act on the data. And that knowledge starts with understanding.

Have you considered how to meet the federal mandate for non-academic indicators under ESSA? Dr. Knobloch is available to answer your questions. Ask him here.

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