Noltemeyer and Saultz: Why States Should Focus More on School Climate Under ESSA

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the first major federal overhaul of education since No Child Left Behind in 2002. Many criticized the federal approach under No Child Left Behind as narrowly defining school quality by standardized tests in reading and math. ESSA places a focus on equity, particularly across student class and racial/ethnic demographics. While the law still requires states to test and report on student achievement, it also mandates that states include at least one non-academic indicator of school quality or student success within the accountability system. We write today to urge states to include a measure of school climate in the new accountability systems.

ESSA specifically lays out several possible non-academic indicators that states can choose from: student engagement, educator engagement, student access to — and completion of — advanced coursework, postsecondary readiness and school climate. State legislatures are now in the process of determining which measures to prioritize, and they need to implement the new accountability system for the 2017–18 school year.

Though many of these measures have the potential to shed light on inequities, we believe measuring school climate is most likely to improve schooling inequities and inform school improvement efforts in a comprehensive and meaningful way.

School climate describes the broad context in which learning occurs, focusing on physical safety, emotional safety, school connectedness, student engagement, interpersonal relationships, the instructional environment and the physical environment. Results from research conducted over the past several decades demonstrates that positive school climate has been associated with improved student academic and psychological outcomes, as well as teacher self-efficacy and job satisfaction; schools with positive climates are also more likely to have reduced rates of suspensions, peer harassment, behavior problems and substance abuse. (For a thorough review of the research on school climate, see Thapa, Cohen, Guffey, & Higgins-D’Alessandro, 2013.)

Fortunately, school climate is fluid, and both teachers and administrators can make meaningful changes to improve their school’s climate.

We recommend school climate be assessed using surveys administered to both students (at appropriate grade levels) and adults (school staff and/or parents), because these groups experience school climate differently. We realize schools face challenges related to the time, cost and implementation of additional assessments. However, there are several free, accessible, valid, quick and reliable school climate measures. As one example, the U.S. Department of Education School Climate Surveys (EDSCLS) is an online suite of four school climate surveys (for students, instructional staff, non-instructional staff and parents) for grades 5–12. The EDSCLS also has a free platform districts can use to administer the surveys and obtain results. These surveys are relatively quick (as brief as 10–30 minutes for the EDSCLS versions), and the platform provides interpretive results to help schools understand and apply the findings. Data from instruments like these allow schools to efficiently capture their school climate strengths and weaknesses and inform system-wide improvements.

ESSA focuses on closing gaps in educational outcomes across student racial and class backgrounds. School climate data can be helpful in this regard because cultural differences in school climate experiences may contribute to troubling disparities in academic and disciplinary outcomes. For example, black students have reported less favorable experiences of school climate than their peers, yet research also suggests that some aspects of positive school climate (e.g., teacher-student relationships) more strongly predict positive outcomes in black youth. Some existing school climate survey data systems allow schools to easily examine data by race/ethnicity. School leadership teams should use these data to drive improvements to ensure that school is a place where students of all backgrounds and identities feel accepted and supported.

Students do not learn best when they are concerned with their physical safety, lack social support, experience bullying or are not encouraged to excel academically. Similarly, teachers are less effective when they have inadequate instructional materials, feel unsupported by their administrators or experience conflictual relationships with their colleagues. Assessing and enhancing these and other school climate dimensions will improve schools. In this way, school climate serves as a foundation through which the other non-academic measures proposed as options through ESSA (e.g., suspensions, teacher engagement, student engagement, postsecondary readiness) can be enhanced. 

ESSA provides states an opportunity to recalibrate accountability systems to include measures beyond student test scores. State policymakers need to take advantage of this opportunity to expand the definition of school quality. Measuring and reporting on school climate can lead to improvement efforts that positively impact student and teacher outcomes. If state policymakers truly want to build a more equitable and useful accountability system, they should incorporate school climate into the state accountability system.

Amity Noltemeyer is an associate professor in the educational psychology department at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Andrew Saultz is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

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