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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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Week In Review

Week in review: Controversy about superintendent opening and lawsuits against the state

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Who will be the next superintendent of Detroit schools? The board of education did not grant Alycia Meriweather an interview, but many in Detroit are pushing the board to make her a candidate. Another wrinkle: One of the three finalists withdrew from the competition.

If you were not able to attend Chalkbeat’s kickoff event last Friday, be sure to watch our coverage. You can also view the show here.

Read on for more about Meriweather, mascots, and how school lunches affect test scores.

— Julie Topping, Editor, Chalkbeat Detroit

Interim chief rejected: Detroit schools superintendent Alycia Meriweather is trying to stay focused on the district’s future, like bringing struggling schools run by the state back into the district, but her departure creates another layer of uncertainty for parents and teachers.

Populist support: Meriweather’s exclusion from the search process has triggered angry reactions on social media. Hundreds of people have signed a petition urging the school board to reconsider. And on Wednesday, the union representing Detroit teachers called on the board to give her a shot.

And then there were two: One finalist withdrew, leaving two candidates vying to be Detroit schools superintendent. Both have ties to the area and bring experience from other low-performing districts.  

Opinion: Secretly discussing potential Detroit superintendent candidates and voting behind closed doors to tell 16 schools on the state’s priority list that their contracts may not be renewed was called a disservice to parents and students. One newspaper calls for better accountability and transparency.

Opinion: Another commentator believes Michigan doesn’t have the will to improve its underperforming schools.

Getting that diploma: The state’s graduation rate was down slightly for the class of 2016.  But fewer students are dropping out and instead are continuing school beyond four years.

Who gets the credit: East Detroit is no longer under the control of a state-appointed CEO. Local leaders object to state efforts to credit him with district improvements, which they say happened before he arrived.

Mascot fines: The state superintendent wants the power to fine school districts that refuse to change mascots and logos that are widely seen as offensive.

Lawsuit against the state: Educators, parent groups, and others interested in education sued to stop Michigan from giving $2.5 million to private schools to reimburse them for costs associated with state requirements.

Another lawsuit against the state: Detroit schools officially filed papers to keep the state from forcing the closure of failing schools.

Shuttle bumps: A school transportation system that some Detroit leaders had been exploring for this city faces challenges in Denver. The system won praise from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Pushback: The state board of education spurned a recommendation from Gov. Rick Snyder’s education panel to disband the board, claiming it provides “transparency and continuous oversight” of school policy.  

Transformation: A nonprofit group hopes to transform a neighborhood by turning the former Durfee Elementary and Middle School into a community innovation center.

Eat to learn: One large study shows students at schools that serve lunches from healthier vendors get better test scores.

Harsh measures? A teacher’s aide at a Detroit school has been disciplined after a video appeared to show her throwing a student.

Q&A

Eva Moskowitz talks about Betsy DeVos, vouchers, discipline — and how the ‘tide is turning’ for charter schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Eva Moskowitz speaks to students at the 2016 "Slam the Exam" rally.

As news spread last fall that Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, was being considered for education secretary by then-President-elect Donald Trump, some fellow Democrats were apoplectic. How could Moskowitz, whose schools serve mostly low-income families of color, align herself with a staunchly conservative administration?

Her meeting with Trump and subsequent endorsement of Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos for the job put her at odds with many other charter leaders. After Trump’s inauguration, Moskowitz’s own staff reportedly pushed her to speak out. Ultimately, she did send a letter home to parents, vowing to assist families wrestling with the president’s immigration policies and to defend transgender students.

Yet she hasn’t wavered on DeVos, arguing that education should be a bipartisan issue. Chalkbeat sat down with Moskowitz to find out more about how she made that political calculation — and if she is concerned about the Trump tie hurting her own aspirations, including a potential future run for mayor.

“I do think that if I were just kind of worrying about some abstract future political career, you wouldn’t do this,” she told us. “But that’s not how I live my life.”

Moskowitz, a former City Council education chair and frequent critic of district schools, knows about political payback. The United Federation of Teachers successfully mobilized against her 2005 bid for Manhattan borough president. Still, she continues to lob grenades at the union and at Mayor Bill de Blasio, whom she’s called “very hostile” to charters.

In a wide-ranging interview, Moskowitz discussed her plans for expanding Success, the city’s largest charter network, which now has 41 schools. Not only does she still expect to have 100 schools within the decade, she predicts the number of students served by charters in New York City will double in just four years, assuming Albany lifts the current cap on the sector.

“The demand is just overwhelming,” she said. “It’s not a force that is easily stopped.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been supportive of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Do you agree with her on vouchers?

I support all forms of parental choice: Charters, tax credits. I certainly have, in the past, supported vouchers for special ed kids, and now vouchers for all kids. If that is your only choice to get to a good school, I can’t morally see how I limit a parent’s opportunity for that. Now, having said that, I think a lot of these schools are not very good. And they need to lose their status when they don’t deliver, just the way the district schools should lose their status. But I broadly support parent choice.

What about the research showing that vouchers are often harmful to students?

I don’t think the vouchers are harmful. I think that’s a misunderstanding — the service delivery mechanism is not what is harmful. What is harmful is the bad school. So, we’ve got to figure out a way to give parents the freedom to choose. I think that’s going to be very empowering and I think parents are far more sophisticated than we give them credit for. And then, government has some regulatory role to ensure that good schools of all forms are promoted and lousy schools are shut down or get access to limited resources. And that’s really an accountability mechanism. But that’s my personal view. I don’t spend a lot of time on vouchers or even tax credits because I think charters are a faster way to get great schools in the hands of parents. But I do believe in being intellectually consistent and so that’s why I support parental choice broadly.

DeVos’s nomination and confirmation split the ed reform movement. Do you think that’s caused permanent damage?

I think there were a lot of splits in the movement beforehand. I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue. And I think you have elections for politics. I supported Hillary Clinton, but when the election is over, I think it’s important to work with people across the aisle. And children and families, for them, the daily experience is not a partisan issue. It’s about great teaching and learning and the academic development and social and emotional development of their kid. So I think there’s a time for politicking and a time for governing.

Did backing her hurt you personally — among your peers in the charter sector? Or for the future, if you want to run for mayor?

We live in a pretty intolerant world and people use everything against one that they possibly could. So I do think that if I were just kind of worrying about some abstract future political career, you wouldn’t do this. But that’s not how I live my life. I try and live my life by thinking about what’s the morally correct thing to do and how do I be consistent with my beliefs and what I’m trying to do. And then I let the chips fall where they may.

Critics are concerned that Secretary DeVos doesn’t know enough about public education. You went to public school, you sent your children to public school. She didn’t. Does that matter?

Well, Joel Klein didn’t know a lot about public education before he became chancellor [of New York City schools]. And I think you could find a number of past secretaries of education who were not either consumers of public education or had that much contact. I think more challenging for her — because you can surround yourself with good people who understand it at a very high level — I think it’s government relations. The space is so contentious that knowing how to navigate in that environment, that’s hard to learn quickly. And I think she’s going to have to learn it quickly. It’s not obvious, I think, if you haven’t been in that world, how brutal it is and how contentious.

Success currently has 41 schools, serving 14,000 students, but you’ve talked about expanding to 100 schools in the next 10 years. How do you choose which neighborhoods you want to open in?

We go to neighborhoods where there is extraordinary educational need, where schools are failing, where there isn’t great art, music, dance, chess. But also where there is space, because I am dependent on there being space to open up schools. Last year, we went to Far Rockaway because there is extraordinary educational need. That community is not in the spotlight, but there is great, great educational need there. And there was a building that was at 50 percent utilization and so there was just plenty of room to open up a new school.

What about your schools that are in more affluent or middle-class neighborhoods? You’ve spoken a lot about serving low-income students, so why open on the Upper West Side or in Union Square?

To me, the definition of public education is that public schools are for everyone. They’re not just for the most educationally disadvantaged or poorest. And so we take the notion of public education very seriously. And where there is space, we are very interested in serving the larger public. We also believe very much in integrated schools — socioeconomically, ethnically and racially — and in New York, there are often very affluent people living right next to quite economically disadvantaged people, and so, if you open up a school, you can have a very integrated school.

Brandeis High School [on the Upper West Side] was an underutilized building. It has brownstones and it has housing projects right next to each other, and so that is a highly integrated school. And we believe in that. Everything else being equal, we think integrated schools are better.

Gov. Cuomo has proposed lifting New York City’s charter cap so we’d just have one statewide cap instead. That would obviously give more flexibility to charters looking to expand in the city. Are you counting on that happening?

It’s always dangerous to count on anything in Albany, so I don’t count on much of anything. But obviously, long-term, the cap would have to be lifted. And there is such parental demand that I don’t even think the strongest opponents are going to be able to resist.

It seems like the governor is supporting you — based on this and other proposals now pending.

The New York state legislature as a whole, I think, has turned a corner. There are a lot of Assembly members who are supportive of charters. It’s a bipartisan issue. I really think it’s unions who are kind of left in their corner.

Most politicians understand this because many of them have children themselves and they want good choices for their own kids. And so, they kind of get that it’s not fair for other people’s kids not to be able to get good choices. So I think the tide is turning in a positive direction.

Charter schools in New York City now serve 100,000 students — roughly 10 percent of city students. Do you envision a future where charters represent close to half of the city’s schools, as in D.C., or nearly all schools, as in New Orleans?

I do think in the next four years, you’ll see a doubling of that size of the charter sector — from 100,000 to 200,000. And remember it took 18 years to get to 100,000. I think it’s going to go much, much faster in the future.

Even with the cap?

Yeah, because I think the cap is going to be lifted at some point. It has already been lifted several times. As I said, the demand is just overwhelming. It’s not a force that is easily stopped. We keep opening and our waitlists keep growing. And we’re one set of schools.

I’m not saying that because I think parents are sort of charter-lovers or anything like that. This whole district public school vs. charter public school — I don’t think parents think of it that way. I think they think of, “I want a great school for my kid. Who’s got one? And how can I get my kid into that school?” And frankly the random lottery system seems fairer to parents than you have to be zoned for some area where you can only get into that zone if you’re able to rent an apartment that is too expensive for you. That seems very unfair to parents.

I just think you’re going to see growth. There are still obstacles, though. It takes a lot of work and navigation to get the space. … And to date, we’ve had a mayor who is very reluctant to give charters space. So that’s going to be a limiting factor if we can’t change those policies and make it easier. I know quite a bit about this and have been working at this for almost two decades, and I find it very, very challenging.

You’ve said we need to rethink teacher training. What needs to change first?

There are so many things. I think teacher training is sort of forced to design its programs often for dysfunctional schools because we have so many. And I think that means that it’s not preparing teachers for places of excellence. The training looks very different — starting with content. Teachers actually need — even kindergarten teachers — need to understand mathematics. The public doesn’t really understand this, but the mathematical understanding needs to be quite high.

Even if you’re explaining something like 3+2 equals 4+1, that equal sign and what that actually means is a kind of a profound mathematical concept. And that is, in a way, algebraic equation. And so, you need to have content mastery. And if you’re a kindergarten teacher or let’s say a third-grade teacher, you need to know where the kids have come from, what does K-2 look like? But you also have to have some idea content-wise of what middle school looks like. And you not only need that on the content side, but you need it on the child development side.

When you encounter kids for a long period of time — five- and six-year-olds — you understand the kinds of mistakes they make. And if you spend a lot of time with pre-adolescents, they have certain misconceptions that you have to understand as a teacher. And that really helps you be a better teacher. And it’s both on the academic side, but it also is socially and emotionally, and how they think about moral choices and moral character. And you can be so much better at the job if you understand that, and that takes a lot of training.

The state teachers union just put out a report claiming that charters have massive cash reserves and shouldn’t be asking the state for more funding. Any thoughts on that?

I haven’t seen the report yet, but I can say that it is profoundly unfair and disingenuous for the unions to go to Albany every year asking for massive increases [in state funding for education] and for them to impose a freeze, which was scheduled to sunset this year. Why should a public charter kindergartner be worth less than a district kindergartner? I’m a parent and, in fact, I could be a parent of a district fifth-grader and a public charter kindergartner. I want my kids to get the same level of resources.

But don’t charter schools have their own funding streams — from foundations and donations?

So does the PTA of P.S. 6. And so does Brooklyn Tech. … So district public schools raise money privately. The mayor raises money privately for the district schools. Yes, we raise — the charter sector — some limited funds privately, but I don’t see that as a moral justification for capping our funding on top of an institutionalized inequity. Charter schools get, depending on how you count and the nature of the school, somewhere between 63 and 75 cents on the dollar. And that was built into the formula and the unions promoted that kind of inequity. Then in 2009, [the state] froze the formula. That is just patently unfair to kids and families.

Shifting gears, some charter networks have abandoned “no excuses” discipline in recent years. Are you ever tempted to rethink your approach?

We were never a “no excuses” school. That’s a really important point. We are a progressive school with an emphasis on magical learning, engagement, talent, development, art, music, dance. That’s not the kind of school we are. We do have uniforms. And, as you know, I have publicly supported and defended suspensions. The mayor now apparently agrees with me, finally, and has reversed himself.

Well, somewhat.

He made them illegal in the New York City school system — you could not suspend children K-2 and now you can. So that’s a pretty big reversal and he was pressured, ironically, to do that by the teachers union.

But his overall thrust is still away from suspensions. He sees them as a last resort.

We agree on that, too. We don’t use suspensions as a first resort. There are many systems of classroom management. But if you have a kid who stabs another kid with a scissor, and you’re the parent of that kid, I think you’re going to feel pretty strongly that that is such a violent act. Or let’s say your child gets bitten, which happens very commonly, you’re going to feel that going into a buddy classroom or not getting as many stars and all the various complex systems of management, that that may not be sufficient.

Suspensions are one of many, many tools in the tool kit and we believe that it is not fair to the other children in the classroom or the teacher to have a violent child disrupting the learning of all. And so we suspend, and we suspend to make it clear to that child and the parents that this is not OK. And we stand by those policies.