What School Climate Is Really About

What School Climate Is Really About

What School Climate Is Really About

With all the talk of improvement science in schools, students and their teachers would be wise to take notice.

The demand for teacher and parent engagement in our country has never been more important. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in education and training are expected to grow by 33 percent between 2014 and 2024. By 2022, our nation’s schools need to have more than 51 million registered students, up from 47 million in 2015.

And yet, the reality of those numbers doesn’t always reflect what classrooms look like today. Researchers at Northwestern University have identified strategies for building healthier school culture that provide everyone — from the learners to the teachers to the administration — opportunities to expand their skills. They’ve also explored how people interpret the conversations happening within those classrooms to understand what, exactly, improvement science actually looks like.

To fulfill this role as a teacher-well-being advocate, the team has written a new report, Becoming effective in a changing world: Transformations in practice and value around improvement science, which debuts today in the Journal of Teacher Education.

Practical Themes

The author is Matt Palm, a professor in Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy. In the past, he has served as president of the American Association of Elementary School Principals and an adviser to the United States Department of Education on implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. The teaching job entails a complex set of dynamics, just like the economy — it’s really all about relationships, so it’s particularly important to have people who have cross-discipline expertise in a range of specialty areas.

Comparing students who are no longer in school to those in school and those who aren’t in school, here are some of the key differences:

80-85 percent of students who did not graduate from high school go on to either college or to jail; 60-70 percent of current or former students will repeat a grade in the following two to four years, but only 30 percent of current or former students will enroll in a four-year college; and 30-40 percent of current or former students will have sold or given away any of their possessions by age 27.

There is a well-deserved fear that the curriculum we are teaching today isn’t useful for the 21st century. The report provides a useful primer on areas of difference: which segments of the curriculum are becoming most pressing in today’s reality? Which growth mindset, social media-avoidance strategies or top-down-focused methods are most appropriate in a diverse world? Is it still important to have a single curriculum for all students, or is it more relevant to develop a contextually specific curriculum tailored to a student’s age and grade level? What do students need to feel like they are accomplishing — and not just following along — when they hear the word “improve” or learning is “about”?

A Global Agenda

Further, the authors recommend more focus on the larger global context: in education as well as the wider world. Stretching beyond the U.S., teachers are now working with students, parents and communities of color in a way that had previously not been considered part of the practice.

Addressing the issues affecting students and parents of color is key to building on the improvement science agenda. In particular, these researchers propose using collaborative, bottom-up approaches to engage students of color and communities of color in conversations about issues of race and inclusion, and working toward the goal of reducing tensions, reducing achievement gaps and increasing their capacity for learning.

The aforementioned chart below breaks down the areas of focus for districts and states based on their demographics. The authors stress that districts must recognize that they are not single-point solutions to problems facing diverse youth.

On Friday, Oct. 19, on NPR’s Fresh Air, Palm noted that this challenge is all the more pressing as teachers look to staff their classrooms: “Before you come to work every day, you need to think about what cultural competency matters to students and what meaningful engagement matters to students and parents.”

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