The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to incorporate at least one non-academic indicator—which might include (but isn’t limited to) factors like school climate or safety—into their accountability frameworks. That makes this study published in Educational Researcher rather well-timed. The authors set out to test the theory that reductions in school violence and/or improvements to school climate would lead to improved academic outcomes. Instead, the evidence they discovered suggests the relationship flows in the opposite direction: A school’s improvement in academic performance led to reductions in violence and improved climate—not the other way around.
The study’s authors point to serious gaps in past studies of school climate and safety, many of which illustrated only correlation (not causation) among the variables examined. This motivated them to test the assumption that improved school climate must come first in the chicken-egg scenario. Using six years of student survey results (from 2007–13) from a representative sample of 3,100 California middle and high schools, analysts employed a research design known for its ability to test causality when large-scale experimental designs aren’t possible. (For the curious, this is described as a “cross-lagged panel autoregressive modeling design,” which determines whether variables at different points in time are correlated with or impact one another). They looked at three waves of survey data based on student reporting of school violence and school climate, along with schools’ academic performance (as measured by California’s academic performance index). Controlling for each variable’s relationship to the others, the analysts examined whether gains in one time period would lead to improvements in another. For example, do improvements in school safety later lead to better academic outcomes, and/or vice versa?
Not surprisingly, the study confirms that school violence and climate are closely associated. Like past studies, it also confirms that low levels of violence and positive school climates are associated with high levels of school performance. But the characteristics of a safe and positive school aren’t necessarily a prerequisite for higher achievement. Researchers found that higher school performance in the first wave of data (2007–09) led to lower school violence and higher school climate ratings in the second wave of data (2009–2011). This pattern remained true for the third wave of data (2011–2013). Meanwhile, they found no evidence that reducing violence or improving school climate first led to increased academic performance across the time periods studied. (They hypothesized, however, that when schools undertake academic improvements, they might automatically include “issues of climate and victimization” as part of reform efforts.)
The researchers concluded that school academic improvement is “a central factor in reducing violence and enhancing a school’s climate.” To explain the findings, they noted that teachers who hold high expectations for students academically may have more positive relationships with them generally. In addition, one can imagine improved teaching contributing to a more positive school culture overall. For example—as any teacher can attest—better instruction diminishes time spent off task and the misbehavior associated with it. Without further study, however, it’s difficult to know exactly how improved academic outcomes led to better climates and lower violence in the schools studied—or to what extent it was the better teaching and school leadership driving school improvement to begin with. One is also left wondering how much academic achievement can be boosted in a school with a negative culture and unsafe corridors. Still, this is an interesting study lending credence to the idea that school improvement efforts must focus on academic outcomes as much as—or at least simultaneous to—attempts to improve climate and safety.
Source: Rami Benbenishty, Ron Avi Astor, Ilan Roziner, and Stephanie L. Wrabel, “Testing the Causal Links Between School Climate, School Violence, and School Academic Performance: A Cross-Lagged Panel Autoregressive Model,” Educational Researcher (April 2016).