We are living through an unprecedented moment of challenge and uncertainty as we experience the serious health and economic impacts of COVID-19 and a simultaneous racial reckoning nationwide. In this same moment, we also know more than ever before about learning and human development. Convergent evidence from multiple disciplines has demonstrated that learning and development are cognitive, social, AND emotional in nature. For example, our ability to learn is shaped by our sense of safety, our sense of belonging, and the quality of our relationships. As students and educators experience disruptions to their lives and routines, as they internalize messages about their safety, identity, and belonging, it is more important than ever to make space to acknowledge these experiences and identify ways we can support one another.
Earlier this summer, we partnered with ANet to offer guidance to school leaders on adopting an integrated and equity-informed approach to social-emotional learning and academic instruction as schools reopen for the year. The three foundational principles we shared were:
- Understand what students, families, and the community need and value;
- Establish a sense of safety and support; and
- Apply best practices from learning science to advance equitable school practice and policies.
As school leaders make difficult decisions about how best to support young people this fall, we want to offer more detailed guidance on the first of these principles. As we state in the joint guidance from TransformEd & ANet, “Student, family, and community voice is particularly important to ensure students are heard and their perceptions are incorporated into decision-making. Furthermore, it is crucial that data are equitably collected, analyzed, and reported, with an explicit focus on examining the results for students who are most marginalized, have experienced trauma and/or racialized trauma, and have diverse learning and language needs.”
But how – in this time filled with uncertainty, competing demands, and limited in-person connection – can educators and school leaders go about ensuring that this is the case? School climate data serves as one mechanism for surfacing student, educator, and community perspectives. It offers a window into individual perceptions and collective experiences. Such data is an essential ingredient in providing responsive and holistic support. Through years of supporting school leaders in facilitating meaningful conversations about social-emotional development and school climate data, we’ve gleaned the following lessons learned about how to approach these conversations effectively.
1. Reflect in advance on what you hope to learn and how you might take action:
Before collecting any kind of data, it is crucial to consider what you hope to learn and how you might take action based on that information. As a general rule, and particularly now when many students, families, and educators are overwhelmed, we should only collect data that we believe we can act on in a timely manner to improve the experiences of students, educators, and families.
2. Think broadly about what data may serve your purpose:
Student, educator, and family surveys about school climate are increasingly common, and they typically offer helpful insight into the experiences of these three key constituents. That said, many other, less formal sources of data can also shed light on the school climate without the added burden of additional data collection. For example, attendance data, classroom observations, academic assignments that ask students to reflect on their learning experiences, student exit tickets, school walkthroughs, and other behavioral data may offer opportunities to understand the school climate without collecting anything new. With small adaptations, all of these forms of data are relevant to both in-person and virtual learning settings.
3. Discuss with a diverse group of students, families, and staff:
Make a plan to discuss the data that are collected with a diverse group of students, families, and staff members. These core constituents can help you make sense of the information by offering additional context and nuance to the data. Consider using existing structures to do this (such as a student council, parent council, or educator professional learning community), and also make space for new voices in these important sense-making conversations.
4. Prepare in advance to make the most of participants’ time:
Prepare to facilitate a productive dialogue by reviewing the data in advance and making note of key themes, open questions, and areas for further discussion. Be sure to disaggregate the data by reported identity markers (e.g. gender, race/ethnicity, language learner status) to enable participants to reflect on whether all students, families, and staff members are experiencing the learning environment in a similar way. Help participants prepare for the meeting by sharing a clear agenda and a set of guiding questions to focus the conversation in advance.
5. Start with description, then move to interpretation and implications:
It can be helpful to use a protocol for examining data that moves from description to interpretation to implications. For example, consider using the ATLAS protocol from School Reform Initiative.
Protocols like this often begin with open-ended questions like “what do you notice?” that prompt participants to describe the data before progressing to interpretive questions like “what do the data suggest?” Other sample questions might include:
- What are you hoping the data will say?
- What are your initial impressions after reviewing the data?
- Is there anything that surprises you?
- Are there significant differences in the data by reported identity markers (e.g. gender, race/ethnicity, eligibility for free/reduced lunch, language learner status, or ability)?
- What do these data suggest about the experiences of our most marginalized students and families?
- How do these data align with your own observations or other data you are collecting?
- What are some areas that require more context?
6. Seek out deeper context and nuance before taking action:
When you dig into interpretation and implications, be sure to seek out additional context and nuance as needed. Keep in mind that some trends emerging from climate data may actually be symptoms of a more systemic issue. Using some form of root cause analysis can help identify the deeper issues at play, which in turn enables us to identify the solutions that are most likely to have an impact. For a simple root cause analysis, try the “5 Whys” approach. Other tools for gathering deeper context and nuance include shadowing a student to learn more about their personal experience of school or holding a student focus group to understand a range of perspectives on a theme that emerged from the data. Both of these approaches also serve to include and elevate additional perspectives in the conversation.
7. Connect what you observe to evidence-based practices to improve the school climate:
The ultimate goal of collecting and examining climate data is to use those data to help improve the experiences of students, educators, and families, especially those who are least well served by our education system. Once you have surfaced key themes and sought out deeper context and nuance, search for evidence-based practices that can address the issues you surfaced. Depending on your area of focus, you might consider looking at the Building Equitable Learning Environments resource library, Facing History’s educator resources, the National Center on Safe and Supportive Learning’s school climate improvement resources,Teaching Tolerance’s classroom resources, Transforming Education’s toolkits and briefs, and Turnaround for Children’s return to school resources.
8. Explicitly name next steps, owners, and timelines:
The process of exploring your data will likely take more than a single meeting. At the end of the process, it is crucial to name specific next steps to ensure that the data inform concrete actions to improve the school climate. Prioritize the actions that are most likely to be feasible and have a significant impact. Be sure to identify an owner and a timeline for each next step, as well as a specific date to check in on progress. If you already have a school improvement plan or similar action plan, incorporate the next steps on improving climate into that plan. Also, consider whether additional resources will be needed to take action on those next steps (e.g. funding, supplies, reallocation of time, or lessening of other responsibilities for the owner of the task, etc.), and if so, identify how those resources will be secured.
You can find a quick reference guide to these eight “data discussion quick tips” here. We hope that these recommendations support you and your school community in surfacing and addressing some of the barriers that get in the way of students’ learning. In the face of heightened stress, trauma, and uncertainty, it is more important than ever to lift up the voices of our young people, educators, and community members, seek out data, and take action to improve the school experience for all. These perspectives are invaluable in our collective work to ensure that every school is a place of safety, belonging, positive relationships, and healthy development for our young people.
For more information on guidance for improving school climate within existing school routines, check out The Aspen Education & Society’s tools:
- Leadership Checklist for school leaders
- Meeting agenda templates for staff, students, and parents
- Exit tickets for climate updates
- Hiring questions for school leaders
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