By Hannah Bartlebaugh

A growing body of research has found that when schools focus on improving culture and climate they see a range of positive outcomes for both students and staff. The positive benefits of a positive school culture include higher engagement and achievement, fewer behavioral disruptions, lower teacher turnover and higher teacher satisfaction.

School culture also matters when tackling educational equity. A recent analysis published in the Review of Educational Research which looks at research on school climate, inequality and academic achievement found that a positive school climate may even help close the achievement gap. School leaders, of course, have known that the research supports this—earlier this year, when Getting Smart spoke to 20 experts who have collectively opened more than a thousand schools, the single most important factor that they identified was school culture.

But if school culture is that important, how can we monitor our progress in the area? The only way to fully know whether or not we’re on track with building a positive school culture is to ask—and listen to—students. Not just the students who are on student council or in AP classes—we need to ask all students. When we ask through student surveys, it’s key that they are done in a valid, reliable and comparable way. This allows for educators to best utilize the data and understand it within the school’s national, state and local contexts. Understanding how student perceptions compare across schools allows for a more nuanced understanding of the data and a clearer understanding of the areas with the greatest room for growth.

Recent findings on students’ perceptions of school culture from YouthTruth, the national nonprofit where I work, help provide some of that national context. Here are some of the key takeaways from the recent report:

  • Only 1 in 3 students rate school culture positively. As the policy landscape under ESSA shifts towards including non-academic metrics of school success, school climate—which is based heavily on school culture—has been a particularly hot topic of conversation as a potential metric. This data shows that there’s serious room for improvement.
  • Only 37% of students agree that students at their school treat adults with respect, and just 57% of students agree that most adults at their school treat students with respect. When it comes to being respectful, both adults and students could be doing better. While it’s important that students recognize that they and their peers are lagging, it also stands out that adults, as role models, also show significant room for improvement.
  • Less than half of students feel that discipline at their school is fair. Discipline in schools can have serious consequences for students—students who are suspended are less likely to graduate on time and are more likely to be suspended again, drop out, or become involved with the juvenile justice system. Discipline and fairness are key components of a healthy and trusting school culture. Creating a common understanding and application of discipline policies is vital.
  •  LGBTQ students need more support: Only 16% of students who selected “I identify in another way” when asked about their gender identity rate their school culture positively, compared to 35% of male students and 32% of female students. This number is incredibly low. A recent survey from the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, GLSEN, found that less than a third of teachers have been trained on issues specific to LGBT students. Understanding the varied experiences of students with different gender identities can help guide resources for better supporting those students.

These are hard truths but are also a starting point for a conversation about creating a more positive learning environment. These findings should serve as a catalyst for more local conversations about how schools can be improved and students can be better supported.

So, what are some next steps?

  1. Keep asking. If you’re a teacher or principal, ask your students if this data resonates with their experiences. What does respect look like at your school? How do students perceive the fairness of discipline?
  2. Create spaces to listen authentically. Create intentional spaces and avenues for gathering ongoing student feedback. Building a culture that empowers students to provide feedback and engage as co-creators of school culture doesn’t happen overnight. But creating consistent spaces for feedback helps strengthen the role of students as partners.
  3. Act on the data. Gathering feedback is great, but it’s what you do with that feedback that matters most. Once you’ve gathered the feedback, use it to drive changes. Create a clear process for using student feedback to drive practices that promote a more positive school culture, and share that back with students.

This data is a snapshot in time. It’s important to continue asking these questions of students, and utilizing their perspective to help improve schools. Especially as the Every Student Succeeds Act has opened the door for more serious weight to be given to non-academic indicators of school success, student feedback on school culture and climate can be a powerful metric. When we listen to those who the system is intended to help, we can create school cultures that foster a more positive learning environment.

Hannah Bartlebaugh is the Marketing and External Relations Coordinator at YouthTruth Student Survey. Follow YouthTruth on Twitter: @Youth_Truth


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