Making Sense of School Climate Survey Results
School Climate Surveys Shine a Light of Possibility on Pain Points
“School climate” couldn’t be more aptly named—it’s multi-layered, and the air quality can feel different based on the role you occupy in your school. But certain core values are universal whether you’re a student, teacher, parent, or principal—the US Department of Education generally defines the fundamental elements of school climate as Engagement, Safety, and Environment. There are several factors that can impact school climate for better or worse—and if you’re among the more than 14,000 Certified Instructors CPI has trained in the field of education, you’re probably aware of many of them. Here are a few (but certainly not all) that figured prominently in researching this blog post:
- Teacher attrition remains high—in her 2016 interview with NPR, Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and founder of Stanford University’s Center for Opportunity Policy in education, confirmed that in the United States, 8% of teachers are leaving the field annually—and less than a third of those are leaving for retirement. The rest cite job dissatisfaction as the primary reason for turning to a different career. “Job dissatisfaction” being yet another umbrella term that can blur the many stressors that teachers encounter in their work—things like poor wages, a lack of collegiality in their organizations, or limited resources and autonomy in the classroom.
- The US Department of Education, in their June 2017 documentation of teacher shortage areas, reports that the current areas of highest need include: bilingual education, mathematics, science, reading specialist, and special education. It’s never been more vital to retain and support school staff in a meaningful way. The Learning Policy Institute’s Leib Sutcher, who authored a 2016 study on teacher shortages in the US, said: “In times of shortage, policymakers often focus attention on how to get more teachers into the profession, but it’s equally important to focus on how to keep the teachers we do have.” (Editor's note: we couldn’t agree more!)
- Students are feeling the impact of these and other stressors on the educational system. News reports continue to document the misuse of restraint and seclusion in school settings. In the NEA’s research brief on school climate, considerable evidence was cited that a lack of engagement increases the likelihood that not only will students be less successful in their educational journey, but heightens their risk of exhibiting aggressive behavior and engaging in substance abuse.
- Compounding the issue further is the fact that in the US, school districts are largely left to their own devices when it comes to addressing these issues; the legislative process tends to be reactive, when schools benefit from proactive, strategic planning. Conversely, states that do implement educational policies can struggle to ensure their long-term effectiveness. In his recent interview on Unrestrained, a CPI podcast, emeritus professor of special education Reece L. Peterson said, “I think a lot of this probably does boil down to what happens at the local level, and whether alert administrators are aware of these issues and provide adequate training and supervision.”
Just over 45% of CPI Certified Instructors serve in the field of education, so we’re driven to understand the broad spectrum of challenges and needs that staff and students face, and support them with practical solutions that they can implement immediately with long-term outcomes. School climate is considered by many educational experts to be the measure of success in this endeavor—is your school a safe, caring, and constructive environment that supports staff and student engagement? How do you develop a culture that facilitates the best possible outcomes for all?
Survey Data Helps Strategically Align Training Efforts with National Guidelines
If you’re going to try and diagnose where your school climate might be struggling, it helps to further define those three underlying values of school climate prescribed by the Department of Education. The National School Climate Center (NSCC) defines school climate as “the quality and character of school life”, and in their 2007 National School Climate Council, determined that a positive school climate would include the following:
- Norms, values, and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally, and physically safe
- People are engaged and respected
- Students, families, and educators work together to develop and contribute to a shared school vision
- Educators model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning
- Each person contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment
In 2011 and again in 2014, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline. At that time, we shared how the principles of Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training, and their subsequent alignments with the framework of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), can help educators make constructive and lasting improvements in their school’s climate based on those guiding principles. The need to accurately gauge the areas of greatest need in a school’s climate came into stark relief as administrators realized that the differing perspectives of staff, students, and families could sometimes seem contradictory when trying to identify what corrective actions to take.
The NSCC’s school climate survey, for example, works to address a designated range of specific traits that make up school climate, as do the inventories of several other educational services agencies and school districts nationwide. Other organizations have posted guidelines to help schools design their own customized climate surveys or choose appropriate survey instruments, and many offer pointers on how to analyze the resulting data. These experts all agree that there should be separate school climate surveys for students, parents, and staff to collect the most complete picture of an organization’s performance, and that a thoughtful analysis of the data is only worth it if administrators are committed to following up on the data with meaningful action.
Survey Results Help Guide Focused Efforts to Achieve Better School Climate
Are school climate surveys worth it? Based on current feedback, participants tend to find the experience incredibly empowering and are eager to help facilitate the next steps prescribed by survey outcomes. In his article, “Measuring School Climate: Let Me Count the Ways”, H. Jerome Freiberg writes that students engage in some of their first acts of citizenship and find a deeper sense of connection and motivation by being involved in shaping their educational experience. Confident that their concerns are being heard and actively addressed, students and staff are more eager to join in events inspired by survey feedback.
- In one district, a simple change was made to reduce the intimidation factor of transitioning from elementary to middle school—an anxiety that many students reported on a school climate survey—instead of having to get up and introduce themselves to the entire class, teachers had students meet each other in small groups on the first day of class. Follow-up conversations with students and instructors confirmed that this seemingly minor gesture gave a major boost to student morale and improved their sense of inclusion and confidence. Not much later into the school year, these students were much more comfortable presenting to the entire class.
- Another high school developed a program where teachers and honors students facilitated after-school tutoring—both tutors and participants earned extra credit for attending, boosting academic performance and improving morale.
- In yet another school district, several principals began teaching one class a week to stay more connected to the demands of day-to-day instruction.
At an elementary school Freiberg consulted on school climate survey outcomes, seemingly systemic behavioral aggression and student/staff engagement issues were traced back to an unlikely source—the cafeteria. Freiberg noted that every staff member and student had something to negative say about the cafeteria (one teacher told him the cafeteria was “from hell”) so he came in one morning to have breakfast at the school.
The cafeteria was like many I have seen over the years. It had folding tables and chairs and seated about 300 students, a majority of whom were eligible for free or reduced breakfast. Students ages 4 through 12 arrived for breakfast continually from 7:00 until 7:30 A.M. They received their breakfast card from an aide, proceeded to the serving area, and then jostled to find a seat near friends. What struck me immediately was the excruciatingly high noise levels. The machines in the cafeteria were all running, an aide was using the public address system to tell Billy or Sarah to "find a seat and sit down," and the cafeteria workers seemed to be playing the 1812 Overture with the stainless steel pots and pans. Students were emptying their trays by banging them inside a metal trash can. Adults were shouting across the room, asking specific students to be quiet. The students talked over all this din. Few adults acted as if they were glad the students were there. The tone of the aides and other cafeteria workers was less than positive. I observed no smiles, no "good mornings," no friendly faces. When I said "good morning" to an older child, he looked at me as if I had called him a bad name. After 30 minutes in the cafeteria, I was ready to fight.
Issues like aggressive ambient noise aren’t always obvious to staffers and students who have adapted to a certain level of chaos in their daily routine. School climate surveys and their feedback can illuminate the difference between an acceptable norm and an issue that benefits from modification. In this case, within just two weeks of making simple environmental and communication changes based on survey results, the daily fights and conflicts had ceased, and staff described the environment as notably more peaceful than it had been for decades.
Says Freiberg: “Measuring school climate can help us to understand what was and what is, so that we can move forward to what could be.”
School Climate Analysis Can Help You More Effectively Synthesize Training and Strategic Planning
The data you gather can pinpoint more exactly where tools like PBIS, self regulation, and crisis prevention training can be implemented to resolve specific areas of need in your organization. With the demands of time, budget, and available resources, a well-designed inventory of your school’s climate can function as a diagnostic tool to drive the resources where they’re most needed, for faster and more effective results.
In reviewing your survey feedback, you’ll be thinking about how you can make your school safer, more caring, and ultimately more successful for the students and staff. As you cull the data, take time to consider this list of resources so that you can approach the next phase—what could be—with the confidence to make positive and supportive changes for the better of all who participate in your school’s climate.
CPI’s School Climate Starter Kit
Whether you’re already a CPI Certified Instructor, or just starting the conversation with your staff about strategic planning based upon your recent school climate analysis, these free resources can provide evidence-based guidance for taking successful next steps.
- Emotional Self Regulation: Techniques for Teaching – CPI’s Tauna Davis interviewed Zones of Regulation® creator Leah Kuypers about guiding students in learning emotional self regulation—and the benefits that educators experience from this process as well. In addition to the free on-demand interview, you’ll find links to a nice bundle of tools for implementing self regulation in your school.
- Secrets From a Behavior Intervention Pro – Maria Navone, Milwaukee Public Schools Safety Assistant and Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® Meritorious Instructor, breaks down effective, evidence-based behavior management strategies that support staff and students.
- Case Study – How School District U-46 Reduced Assaults by 90% - you’ll get clear insights into how one school district’s decision to implement CPI training reduced incidents of violence by 90%, lowered out-of-school suspensions by 75% over five years, and has improved student outcomes in grades and graduation rates. And you can review even more case studies.
- Restraint Reduction With CPI and PBIS – Certified Instructors and long-time behavior learning assistance teachers Doug Johnson and Jennifer Taylor take an in-depth look at how CPI training, infused with PBIS strategies, can significantly reduce the use of restraint in your school.
“Climate Change” Might Feel Like A Daunting Task—But Your School Deserves to Be Successful
The school climate survey process can feel daunting—it takes time and consideration to choose the right survey tools; administer the inventory to students, faculty, and families; and analyze the results. But if your school is undertaking the process, take heart that this evidence-based approach to strategically enhancing your school’s climate is a worthy investment of your time and resources, because it will streamline your subsequent efforts to address the identified pain points. Pairing your response to school climate survey results with ongoing staff training can ensure that you achieve outcomes in which aggression and disengagement are minimized, motivation and well-being are improved, and staff morale and retention are positively bolstered—for the long haul.
Don’t let that stack of school climate survey data overwhelm you. You’re more than capable of taking the positive action to strengthen a culture of Care, Welfare, Safety, and Security℠ in your school—from the inside out.