How Should We Use the Department of Education’s New School Climate Web Tool?

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source:   Green & Write – April 28, 2016

Big changes could be coming for schools, districts, and states hoping to systematically measure features of school climate. Recently, the Department of Education (ED) released a school climate survey web tool which schools, districts, and states can administer on their own to collect data about school climate indicators. The web tool is free to use, and it’s extremely user friendly, containing easy-to-administer surveys for students, teachers, and parents. The tool also has built-in data analysis programs which instantly process survey responses and generate reports that can be saved locally so results can be tracked over time.

The web tool was developed by a team of school climate experts, and the surveys measure three broad domains: engagement, safety, and environment. The first of these, engagement, includes several components of “school connectedness” such as cultural sensitivity, human relationships, and school participation. Safety encompasses things like emotional safety, physical safety, bullying, substance abuse, and emergency preparedness. Environmental concerns include those related to the physical environment (e.g. facilities), instructional environment (e.g. school resources), discipline policies, and the physical and mental health of school community members. Altogether, the survey for students is 73 questions long, the survey for teachers is 82 questions long, and the survey for parents is 43 questions long.

A Step in the Right Direction

The new survey tool represents a step in the right direction for many districts hoping to measure school climate more systematically. Previously, many districts interested in measuring school climate had not been able to do so because of the prohibitive cost of survey development. This was particularly unfortunate because there is a known relationship between school climate and academic performance. Simply put, districts hoping to improve student performance are unlikely to do so if they cannot ensure an adequate learning environment for their students and staff.

School climate is a major concern. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

While the new tool is exciting, schools and districts would be wise to proceed cautiously in how they collect and use the new survey data. They should also be extremely wary of holding schools accountable for their survey results because there are serious concerns about the appropriateness of using student perceptions to measure something as vague as school climate. Moreover, the survey should not be viewed as a cure-all as it does not provide guidance on what should be done to improve school climate. Sandy Williamson, the director of the ED’s National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (which oversaw the survey development), has warned there is a not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. If a school performs poorly on student perceptions of teacher warmth, for instance, there is not always an easy solution. Similarly, some domains measured by the surveys (e.g. the quality of school facilities) are determined in part by governmental agencies outside the walls of the school and would require a system-wide improvement effort.

Perhaps the most positive outcome from the survey’s launch is that it represents the kind of federal technical assistance and guidance that the ED was founded to provide. The ED is not going to force schools or districts to use the survey or insert it into existing accountability regimes. But by releasing the web tool, it has opened up opportunities for districts to do things they could not have done using their own limited resources. The timing is also propitious given that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to include at least one indicator other than academic achievement in their school accountability systems. A measure of school climate was explicitly included among the list of possibilities, and now that this web tool has been released, it seems that a big step is about to be made towards measuring the things stakeholders care about.

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.