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5 Ways School Climate Impacts Achievement

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As we noted in our blog last week, every year our School Works research reveals statistically significant relationships between school practices that are not necessarily academically related (like how a school chooses to discipline a child) and student achievement. National research on successful turnaround programs in Massachusetts from the American Institutes for Research backs this up as well.

Here are five ways (based on data from School Works research into Pittsburgh Public Schools that we compared against achievement data) that lay out a roadmap for changes that can help improve school climate.

1. Schools that work recognize that all students can achieve

Our vision for Pittsburgh is that 100% of students—white, black and brown—graduate ready for college or career.  We acknowledge that many factors outside of a school’s control affect student achievement.  However, schools that live and breathe by the proven fact that effort creates ability have higher-achieving students who are more likely to be prepared for life beyond high school.  Research over many decades has proven that when adults in schools have high expectations for students and act on the belief that all students can learn and succeed, students will achieve at higher levels.

High expectations are linked to achievement in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

High school students who feel challenged generally attend schools with higher graduation rates, higher percentages of seniors eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise, higher percentages of Algebra proficiency by 11th grade, and higher percentages of graduates attending college or trade school directly after graduating.

High expectations are linked to student engagement in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

Students who feel challenged and cared for by their teachers (based on student responses to the Tripod survey) and whose principals report more teachers who have high expectations of all students are significantly less likely to receive an out-of-school suspension or to be chronically absent (missing 10% or more of school days, excused or unexcused).

When principals report more teachers with high expectations, they also report more teachers proactively working to make the school safe, positive, and academically rigorous.  These principals also report greater school wide effectiveness at developing students’ social and emotional learning skills. These actions nurture a positive school climate that helps keep students engaged and less likely to participate in negative behaviors.

2. Schools that work model and teach dignity and respect

All students should be treated with—and taught to treat others with—dignity and respect in school.  Effective teachers value the diversity of their students and work hard to make their classrooms safe and inclusive spaces where all students can learn and succeed.  Where students perceive a better-structured school with positive student-teacher relationships, behavioral problems are less likely to occurRelationships start early; if a student-teacher relationship is negative in kindergarten, it is more likely that the student will have academic and behavioral problems in later grades.

Modeling dignity and respect is linked to student achievement in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

Principals at less vulnerable schools—which have higher achievement, growth, and lower achievement gaps, report more staff members proactively working to create a positive school culture or actively addressing students when they make discriminatory comments toward one another.

Schools with more black and brown students must prioritize modeling dignity and respect:

High school students attending schools with higher percentages of black and brown students reported fewer of their teachers treating them with respect or caring about their lives outside of school.  Principals at these schools also reported similar challenges.

3. Schools that work emphasize accountability, build character, and teach students how to make amends—rather than suspend them—when they misbehave.

Until recently, schools in our District practiced zero tolerance policies that automatically suspended students for minor infractions such as dress code violations, disrespect, and cell phone use.  Exclusionary discipline such as out-of-school suspensions and expulsions has negative consequences for students: just one suspension in 9th grade doubles the chance of a student dropping out, from 16% to 32%.

Suspensions have a disproportionate effect on black and brown students.  According to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, black and brown students are three times as likely to be suspended as white students across the country.  This pattern exists in Pittsburgh Public Schools, where 10% of all African American students were suspended in October and November 2014, compared to only 3% of White students.  Black students received 76% of the suspensions even though they represent just 53% of the District’s students.

There are alternatives to exclusionary discipline.  These alternatives prioritize keeping students in the classroom by helping them understand and address the root causes of their misbehavior.  One promising alternative that has recently been embraced by the District is restorative practices.  Restorative practices refer to a set of school wide values and actions that emphasize the importance of positive relationships as central to building community and provide opportunities to restore relationships when harm has occurred.

More schools reporting using restorative practices in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

Although 39 out of 50 schools continue to practice zero tolerance policies, a third of principals report positive changes based on the Student Bill of Rights championed by Teen Bloc students last year.  These changes include reducing the number of minor infractions resulting automatic suspension, using restorative practices such as mediation with students and parents, and more staff having high expectations and modeling positive relationships with students.

Restorative practices are linked with lower suspension rates in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

The average suspension rate was lower overall in schools reported to have more effective restorative practices than in schools reported to have less effective restorative practices or that do not use restorative practices.

4. Schools that work provide stability in leadership

We know that effective leadership takes time to grow at a school.  Principals must collaborate with teachers to establish a shared vision of instruction and performance.  They must monitor and assess teaching and learning, ensuring that teachers receive meaningful feedback, resources, and flexibility with their time in order to grow their practice.

Principal stability is linked with positive student outcomes in Pittsburgh.  We looked at the number of principals each high school has had in the past 4 years (range: one to three).  Every school with students in the top quartile of college or trade school attendance, eligibility for the Pittsburgh Promise, and enrollment in advanced courses (Advanced Placement and Center for Advanced Studies) had only one principal in the past four years.

5. Schools that work for students work for parents

Parents across the district responded to a survey about their satisfaction with their child’s school.  While survey response rates were generally low and uneven across schools, we found significant relationships among the data we analyzed. Overall, when parents say they would recommend their child’s school to another parent, the following positive indicators of school climate are in place:

  • More teachers feel the school is a good place to work and learn
  • Student stability rate is higher
  • Chronic absences are lower
  • Fewer students are suspended
  • More students proficient in English and Language Arts and Math
  • Smaller racial achievement gaps

Want to learn more? Join us Wednesday, August 19, 2015 on Twitter for a tweetup. Use #pghschoolclimate to follow the conversation.