18 Jun School Climate Research – A Trivial Pursuit or a Catalyst for Change?
What educators need to better understand the condition of their school’s climate.
When it comes to educational research and reform, a schism of perspectives has been created within the field that divides school climate in two: School climate research as a necessity for progress and school climate research as a waste of time. There seems to be very little middle ground.
Carolyn S. Anderson of the American Educational Research Association recognized that researchers fall into two categories when it comes to the search for school climate: Pessimists and Optimists. Pessimistic researchers view school climate as a Unicorn: a mythological creature that can be wished and dreamt about, but can never be found. McPartland and Epstein, of The John Hopkins University Center for the Study of Social Organization of Schools, fall under this category, identifying the overwhelming complexity of measurement, variable selection and statistical analysis as an impossibility rather than a challenge.
As someone who doesn’t tend to back down from a challenge or look at the glass half empty, I view school climate as a Phoenix rather than a Unicorn. Strides in school climate research, like the phoenix, are born of the ashes of the previous system failures. At EduMetrics, we believe that the previous failures are due to insufficient models, inadequate measures and too few or the wrong variables.
There is a reason for this stark dichotomy in outlook: It comes from the wide variability in the very definition of school climate. Researchers are concerned with theory based, variables to study (and their hypothesized interrelationships), unit of measurement choices, and validity of subjective and qualitative data, but even these agreed upon areas of study have trouble being sufficient in defining the diverse climate typologies that have evolved over time. Andrew Halpin and Don Croft, architects of the Organizational Climate Description Questionnaire (OCDQ), a sixty-four-item Likert scale questionnaire that is used to assess the teacher–teacher and teacher–administrator interactions outlined in The Organizational Climate of Schools, sum up the complexity of school climate by saying: “Personality is to the individual what ‘climate’ is to the organization.”
Recognizing these issues and developing a method to try and assess school climate while trying to accommodate individual school’s distinctive qualities was revolutionary. But that was 1964. This is 2015. The OCDQ scores school climate based off four possible answer responses: “rarely occurs,” “sometimes occurs,” “often occurs” or “very frequently occurs.” The OCDQ is also designed, not even for students, but for teachers. This restricts answers to four completely general and impersonal categories that teachers must choose from to predict how their students feel about school climate and since the OCDQ is typically conducted only once a year, the survey creates a glaring availability bias. There weren’t many alternatives for Andrew Halpin and Don Croft. The burden of consistent surveys in schools was too much to overcome, but like I said that was 1964.
This is 2015! Surveys can be taken and processed with a couple taps on a smartphone, tablet or computer, they can provide us with more specific outcomes, and most importantly they can be taken BY the students not FOR the students. By increasing the frequency of surveys, we can eliminate availability bias, we can design more relatable answer choices, and this can all be done on something that is probably in their hand anyway.
We at EduMetrics don’t believe it is impossible to measure school climate. We believe it is impossible using the current methods and under the current system. The problem is schools don’t have the time or in-house personnel to develop, integrate, and manage these methods. That’s in large part why we’re so passionate about what we do at EduMetrics, because we know schools want the better data, but they often don’t know where to start.
We’ve recently successfully piloted a comprehensive school climate assessment for both teachers and students using our iNOTED app, which sends brief multiple choice questions to smartphones and tablets each week. We know implementing these ideas designed specifically to measure and report back the data that teachers and administrators want may take a shift in thinking, but it’s the first step in a larger paradigm shift in the way schools collect and use data to drive their decision-making.