Once inside, it doesn’t take long to soak up the climate of a school. A simple walk down the hallway can give you clues. Is it clean? Are the bulletin boards up to date? Can you hear the energetic buzz of learning versus the cacophony of bad behavior? Do students and teachers greet you with a smile or a cold shoulder? It’s a sense that you get about school culture—meaning that it’s difficult to unpack the myriad social, academic, and cultural factors that comprise it. But that’s not for lack of trying. Research tells us that things like shared beliefs and norms, strong connections among staff, respectful behavior, and positive peer-to-peer connections shape a school’s culture.
But how much influence do teachers have on how students perceive the educational environment? A recent CALDER study attempts to measure the effects of teachers on students’ perceptions of school climate—a.k.a. “climate value-added”—including how those effects vary by student race.
The research team, consisting of Ben Backes, James Cowan, Dan Goldhaber, and Roddy Theobald, uses administrative data from Massachusetts for students in grades 4–8 and 10. The study covers school years from 2011 through 2019 and is replete with enrollment, course taking, transcript, test score, and disciplinary data. They connect those data to the student’s assigned teacher to generate student-teacher linked datasets. And for 2018–19, they can also link these data to statewide student-survey data, which include measures of engagement, safety, and environment, including the quality of classroom activities and of the student-teacher relationship.
To calculate climate value-added (VA), they use standard methods applied in the teacher effectiveness literature, meaning use of a two-step VA model that includes numerous student, classroom, and school covariates. They are looking at differences within a school, grade level, content area, and year and include numerous measures to mitigate concerns that “sorting” of students to certain teachers (perhaps Mrs. Jones runs a tight ship so she gets the kids prone to goof off) or other school-level factors might explain their results.
First, the researchers find that overall climate measures are systematically lower for Black than White students and tend to be higher for Asian students. When looking into the nine discrete climate measures, they see that Black students report more positive experiences relative to classroom participation and instruction but less positive experiences when engaging with school personnel and other students. Analysts also find that perceptions of students of color and White students reflect different views of the same environment more than differences in the learning environment itself, meaning the differences can’t be attributed to student assignment to a particular teacher, classroom, or track.
Next, they find that teachers do indeed shape their students’ perceptions of the school climate. And that those teachers who contribute more to the learning environment—meaning that their students report positive feelings about school climate—also have positive effects on student engagement and achievement (primarily test scores and absences). This is especially the case for students of color. In other words, there is not a trade-off between the things that makes kids feel engaged, safe, and cared for and the things that boost achievement. The same teachers do both.
Although racial matches between student and teacher somewhat improve students’ views of learning climate (especially for Black students), educators who improve school climate generally tend to do so for students of all races. Moreover, teachers whose students of color report better school climate in one year also have higher reports of school climate among students of color in other years, so analysts wonder whether this pattern is evidence of “culturally responsive teaching.”
The simple takeaways to this complex report are that having a positive school climate matters and that teachers play an important role in how students perceive it. Not surprisingly, educators who make a positive mark on the school’s climate also tend to make positive marks on multiple outcomes for kids. So, teachers, keep on high-fiving students as they enter your class, joking with them good-naturedly, pushing them to aim higher, and being there when they need extra help. Because all of those culture-enriching acts aren’t just feel-good stuff. They make a real difference.
SOURCE: Ben Backes, James Cowan, Dan Goldhaber, and Roddy Theobald, Teachers and School Climate: Effects on Student Outcomes and Academic Disparities, CALDER Working Paper (October 2022).