Educators: Investing in Student Achievement Means Investing in School Climate

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While I was setting up for a recent bullying prevention presentation at a high school, a counselor expressed disappointment and frustration at some teachers’ reactions to having me come speak to their students.

“They don’t understand why we were spending time on an assembly and training like yours when we need to be focusing on achievement.”  It’s sadly a common refrain that I hear from teachers around the country.

And I get it!  Teachers are under tremendous pressure to improve test scores that measure very specific aspects of the student educational experience.  More and more, teachers livelihoods are one the line as districts tie teacher pay and teacher advancement to student achievement, a practice that is dubious in its research support to say the least.

But this is the environment in which teachers must practice their craft.  People are constantly looking over their shoulders, and teachers are under an incredible amount of pressure to ensure growth in their students’ “achievement,” as measured by districts, state tests, and federal measures.

Thus, I completely understand the laser-like focus on achievement data.

The good news is, though, that some of the lowest-hanging fruit in helping students learn and perform better in school is often the stuff that gets treated as “fluff” or “extraneous.”

Maslow’s On Our Side

In the most simple of psychology, we know that our basic needs must be met before we can care about more complex problems.  As it relates to education, how can a kid focus on the intricacies of balancing equations or diagraming sentences if they are worried for their safety or consumed by their feelings of loneliness within a community that’s supposed to accept and include them?

Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before students can focus on self actualization and esteem, two of the needs of Maslow’s hierarchy that are met through a rigorous and rewarding education, students have to feel safe and like they belong.

Simply put, one of the best ways to improve student achievement is to start by making sure all students feel safe and fully supported in their school environment.

Now, when it comes to their classroom environment, most teachers do a pretty good job of meeting this basic need.  They make sure that no taunting or teasing takes place during class, and they work hard to support all of their students.  However, school culture and climate extends far beyond the reach of one single classroom.

The Costs of Feeling Unsafe

That’s precisely why we need school-wide efforts to prevent bullying and to build inclusive school culture.

Approximately 30% of students are targeted for bullying behaviors, leading to them feeling unsafe and marginalized within the very community where they ought to feel safest.  Further, research from Penn State indicates that those young people who witness bullying are also unlikely to feel safe in their school environment, and the impacts can even last throughout the rest of their lives.

Thus, at minimum, 30% of our students aren’t having their basic needs of safety met because they’re being targeted for bullying, and when we consider the students who are adversely impacted by simply witnessing bullying, we know that a strong majority of our young people are carrying the weight of fear into school.

In their comprehensive review of the research on bullying behavior and school climate, the American Educational Research Association, one of the leading bodies of educational researchers in the United States, clearly lays out the academic impact of negative, unsafe school culture and climate:

“There is substantial evidence that a positive school climate engages students in learning and promotes academic achievement and success.  A study of 276 high schools found that a school climate characterized by lower rates of bullying and teasing was predictive of higher graduation rates four years later . . . Schools with high levels of bullying and teasing had dropout rates 29% above the state average, compared with schools with a low level of bullying and teasing, which had a dropout rate 28% below average.

The association between school climate and graduation rates was just as strong as the association between student poverty and graduation rates.

Did you catch that last part?  Most any teacher could tell you at least the basic impacts of student poverty on academic achievement and success.  Many of those teachers, though, would scoff at taking “instructional time” away to focus on school culture and climate.  However, the impact on graduation rates of negative school climate is similar to the impact of student poverty!

It’s not complicated: when students don’t feel safe or included, they don’t engage in their learning, and they achieve at lower levels.

The Easiest Way to Improve Student Achievement

As any math teacher worth his or her salt will tell you, improving student achievement through math instruction takes serious work, effort, and time.  It’s really hard work!  The same goes for English, Science, or any other academic area of study.

Should that hard work be done?  Absolutely.  However, we shouldn’t allow negative school culture and climate to erase the effort dedicated educators put into curriculum, instruction, and relationships.

Essentially, the lowest hanging fruit of student achievement is culture and climate.  Compared to moving the metric of math achievement or reading ability, making students feel safe is easy work.  And when students feel safe, it lays a foundation for their achievement in other areas.

Students who feel safe and included are not only able to better demonstrate what they know (because they’re not preoccupied about feeling alone), but they are able to focus more intently on the learning at hand.

And while making students feel safe and included takes real, hard work, it also is completely doable!

Involve the Entire Community

To actually improve school culture and climate and, by extension, student performance and achievement, we have to leave behind the misguided emphasis on punitive measures and zero-tolerance policies (which research tells us don’t work to build more inclusive environments).

Instead, we have to get down into those grass roots!  We have to involve the entire school community!  Again, the AERA notes that multiple studies tell us that “schools where staff, parents, and students create common norms and ways of dealing with bullying can achieve sustainable reductions in victimization.”

The research brief continues to explain that because “bullying is a social phenomenon that goes beyond the bullying-victim interaction,” we have to bring all stakeholders to the table.  We have to offer parents resources so that they know how best to help.  We have to offer teachers training in how to intervene and establish inclusive climates.  We have to focus on the “critical role of bystanders” by giving students tools and curriculum that empower them to be the agents of change.

The point, though, is that building inclusive school communities takes work, but it’s not rocket science.  We just have to be willing to commit as much energy into it as we do into preparing for the onslaught of standardized tests that we face each year.

More than Just Assemblies

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the teachers who are wary of assembly programming are dead right.  As someone who makes part of my living offering assembly programming, you need to know that assemblies are a waste of time and money . . . unless there’s coordinated follow up.

Without effective follow up and programming, school assemblies are nothing more than a “feel good” flash in the pan.  But with a commitment to curriculum and training, assemblies can be incredibly effective at lighting the fire toward building a more inclusive campus.

But we shouldn’t pretend that an assembly is enough.  The work of building an inclusive campus is not going to happen over night.  Heck, it may not even happen over the course of one year.  It may take a full cycle of students through the system before you see the fruits of your labor.

But the research is there.  Investment into preventing bullying and building inclusive school culture and climate is investment in student achievement.

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