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School conditions matter for student achievement, new research confirms

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Move over, teacher quality. A new study on New York City schools could make school climate the next frontier in the ongoing quest to boost student learning.

A first-of-its-kind study released Thursday found that significant gains in key measures of a school’s climate, like safety and academic expectations, can be linked to the equivalent of an extra month and a half of math instruction and, in some cases, a 25 percent reduction in teacher turnover.

The researchers say these findings could help shift the debate about what factors are most important in boosting student achievement. Individual teacher effectiveness may be key, but if a school simply has an ineffective principal or unclear disciplinary code, the authors argue, “efforts to measure and strengthen individual teacher effectiveness are unlikely to produce desired results.”

“The status quo has really focused on policies directed at individual teachers,” explains Matthew Kraft, an economics and education professor at Brown University and lead author of the study. But “teachers do not work in a vacuum.”

The report, which comes from NYU’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools, might seem so self-evident that they’re hardly worth studying. After all, why wouldn’t a better learning environment boost student achievement and make teachers more likely to stay in their jobs?

But Kraft said that measuring school climate is notoriously difficult, and no other study has looked at the effects of in school climate and student achievement over time. “We may have known that,” Kraft says, referring to the connection between school climate and student outcomes, “but whether we’ve been able to provide evidence that policymakers find relevant and convincing has been unclear.”

To find that relevant data, the researchers tapped into annual surveys collected by the city education department across 278 New York middle schools, which specifically ask teachers about their school’s climate. They zoomed in on middle schools because they tend to have challenging school climates and serve students at a crucial moment in their social and academic development.

Based on 31,000 responses to teacher surveys between 2008 and 2012, the authors honed in on four measures of school climate: school safety and order, leadership and professional development, high academic expectations, and teacher relationships and collaboration. The study tracked those indicators of school climate over time and compared them with student test scores and school data on teacher retention.

Each measure, the report found, is independently linked to decreases in teacher turnover. And gains on two of those measures, high academic expectations and school safety, were directly connected to better scores on state math exams.

The study found that if a school improved from the 50th percentile across the study’s four measures of school climate (leadership, expectations, relationships, and safety) to the 84th percentile, teacher turnover would decline by 25 percent, or 3.8 percentage points.

A similar percentile increase in measures of school safety and high academic expectations alone boosted math scores enough to account for an extra month and a half of instruction. (Improvements in school climate also boosted language arts scores on state tests, but those gains weren’t statistically significant.)

Kraft acknowledged that these findings show that schools would need fairly large improvements across multiple measures of school climate before seeing even modest returns on student achievement and teacher retention. But that shouldn’t discount the potential benefits of focusing on learning environments.

“Moving the needle on student achievement at scale is a very difficult thing to do,” he said. “What we’ve shown here is a potential avenue where that sustained investment [in school climate] is likely to pay off.”

These data may provide some support for schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s emphasis on cross-school collaboration and support for teachers over strict accountability.

For its part, the education department wrote that the findings are “exciting” and “demonstrate that school climate and capacity building, as measured by the survey, provide crucial feedback that helps drive school improvement and are closely linked with important outcomes.” The department added that 160 schools are participating in programs designed to promote best practices, including some that focus on school culture – and there are plans to expand them.

Nick Lawrence says he’s seen the benefits of paying attention to school climate firsthand. A middle school teacher who is part of East Bronx Academy for the Future’s administrative team, Lawrence says teacher retention and certain test scores have improved since the school started encouraging one-on-one coaching for every teacher, and offered opportunities for them take leadership positions.

“The teachers are more experienced, they’re more experienced with our particular population, [and] the curriculum gets stronger each year,” he said. “Our retention of teachers has gone through the roof compared with prior years.”

The study concludes that more research is needed to specify exactly how schools should try to improve their respective climates, but it does hint at the possibility that school climate data could be used to assess principal or school performance. “I think there’s a lot of potential for infusing the school improvement and personnel evaluation process with information on school climate,” Kraft said.

But some educators cautioned against that approach, arguing that one need look no further than standardized testing culture to see how it might go awry.

Using school climate data as an assessment tool, “would [create] pressure to boost their survey results in weird ways,” said Megan Moskop, a teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights. “In trying to meet whatever quantitative mark, the quality often gets lost.”

Generally speaking, though, Moskop was thrilled with the study’s findings. “School climate is not one of those things that’s easy to measure … so it goes ignored,” she added. “I’m delighted to see this empirical support for something I think me and my fellow teachers have always known.”

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future funding

Trump’s education budget could be bad news for New York City’s ‘community schools’ expansion

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the sole source of funding for New York City’s dramatic expansion of its community schools program, according to budget documents released Tuesday.

Less than two weeks ago, city officials announced its community schools program would expand to 69 new schools this fall, financed entirely by $25.5 million per year of funding earmarked for 21st Century Community Learning Centers — a $1.2 billion federal program which Trump is again proposing to eliminate.

The community schools program is a central feature of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy for high-need schools — a model he called a “game-changer” earlier this month. It is designed to help schools address the physical health and emotional issues that can impede student learning, in part by pairing them with nonprofit organizations that offer a range of services, such as mental health counseling, vision screenings, or dental checkups.

City officials downplayed the threat of the cuts, noting the Republican-controlled congress increased funding for the program in a recent spending agreement and that similar funding cuts have been threatened in the past.

“This program has bipartisan support and has fought back the threat of cuts for over a decade,” a city education official wrote in an email.

Still, some nonprofit providers are nervous this time will be different.

“I’m not confident that the funding will continue given the federal political climate,” said Jeremy Kaplan, director of community education at Phipps Neighborhoods, an organization that will offer services in three of the city’s new community schools this fall. Even though the first year of funding is guaranteed, he said, the future of the program is unclear.

“It’s not clear to [community-based] providers what the outlook would be after year one.”

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they have contingency plans to ensure the 69 new community schools would not lose the additional support, equivalent to roughly $350,000 per school each year.

“Community schools are an essential part of Equity and Excellence and we will do everything on our power to ensure continuation of funding,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email.

New York state receives over $88 million in 21st Century funding, which it distributes to local school districts. State education officials did not immediately respond to questions about how they would react if the funding is ultimately cut.

“President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” state officials wrote in a press release. “If these proposed cuts become reality, gaps and inequity in education will grow.”

vying for vouchers

On Betsy DeVos’s budget wish list: $250M to ‘build the evidence base’ for vouchers

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Recent research about private-school voucher programs has been grim: In Washington D.C., Indianapolis, Louisiana, and Ohio, students did worse on tests after they received the vouchers.

Now, the Trump administration is looking for new test cases.

Their budget proposal, released Tuesday, asks for $250 million to fund a competition for school districts looking to expand school voucher programs. Those districts could apply for funding to pay private school tuition for students from poor families, then evaluate those programs “to build the evidence base around private school choice,” according to the budget documents.

It’s very unlikely that the budget will make it through Congress in its current form. But the funding boost aimed at justifying private-school choice programs is one way U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is delivering on years of advocacy for those programs. On Monday, she promised the Trump administration would soon lay out the “most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history.”

DeVos and other say vouchers are critical for helping low-income students succeed and also help students in public schools, whose schools improve thanks to competitive pressure. Private school choice programs have also come under criticism for requiring students with disabilities to waive their rights under IDEA and for allowing private schools to discriminate against LGBT students.

Bill Cordes, the education department’s K-12 budget director, told leaders of education groups Tuesday that the “sensitive” issues around the divide between church and state and civil rights protections for participating students would be addressed as the program is rolled out.