Whenever parents would get into a discussion about “good schools” and “bad schools,” I would urge them to look beyond the simple rankings of test scores and try to actually get inside a school. Meet the principal. Watch the children interact. Observe a classroom. Get a feel for the place. If it sounds squishy and subjective, well that’s because it is. It’s also really important, because it used to be the only way parents could gauge this elusive concept called “school culture,” which turns out to be an important predictor of whether a school is primed to improve, stagnate or falter. Now parents have a more reliable way to “get a feel” for the school—through research-tested school culture surveys. These surveys measure a range of things—whether students feel safe and a sense of belonging, whether they trust their teachers, whether adults trust one another and work cooperatively, whether teachers hold high expectations for student learning. But as The 74
recently reported, only three states have made school climate surveys a part of their new state accountability plans required under the
Every Student Succeeds Act:
Of the dozen state ESSA plans that have been submitted so far to the U.S. Department of Education, most have nothing but praise for school climate surveys as measurements of school quality. But when it comes to actually using surveys as accountability measures, most states back away. Only three states—Illinois, Nevada, and New Mexico—have school climate surveys as part of their “fifth indicator,” a new accountability tool in the Every Student Succeeds Act that lets states grade schools on measures other than reading and math scores. The others are turning to measures like chronic absenteeism, suspension rates or college and career readiness instead. But those states are the exception. Despite the widespread popularity of climate surveys, other states said they weren’t ready to make the leap. A survey in Massachusetts, for example, found that 87 percent of respondents supported using school climate as an accountability measure while 83 percent supported using chronic absenteeism. Massachusetts chose absenteeism over culture for its ESSA plan.
I find this skittishness about using school surveys deeply ironic. One of the most pointed pieces of pushback against the legacy of No Child Left Behind was its singular reliance on standardized test scores as a measure of school quality. So now we have a chance as a nation to dig deeper and explore the complexity of what makes for a good school. But states—surprise, surprise—are not jumping at it. Why? It’s too hard to roll out, they say. Or the results can be gamed because students or teachers will change their responses if the stakes are too high. I get that, but they could take the approach Illinois took by measuring participation in the survey and not progress. If you put surveys in an accountability plan, you ensure that schools are measuring their culture. And if you count participation, then you create an incentive for higher response rates, and that only makes the survey more reliable. And that means the schools and parents now have important information they can learn from. We’re still waiting for a few dozen more states to submit their ESSA accountability plans. Let’s cross our fingers that they don’t take the easy way out. Give schools the tool they need to self-reflect. Give parents the information they need to choose the right school for their children.
Tracy Dell’Angela is a writer, education nonprofit executive director and a mom passionate about education improvements. Previously, Tracy was Director of Outreach and Communications for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. She came to IES from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which produces research that ...