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Building a Positive School Climate

Making ESSA’s Equity Promise Real: State Strategies to Close the Opportunity Gap
By Stephen Kostyo Jessica Cardichon Linda Darling-Hammond
Cover Art for report Making ESSA’s Equity Promise Real: State Strategies to Close the Opportunity Gap


This policy brief is part of a larger research report, Making ESSA’s Equity Promise Real: State Strategies to Close the Opportunity Gap, that describes how states are using opportunities in ESSA to better support historically underserved students through the thoughtful selection of specific equity measures in their accountability and improvement systems. To this end, the full report suggests focusing attention on students furthest from opportunity by taking steps to 

  • reduce rates of student suspension; 
  • build a positive school climate; 
  • reduce rates of chronic absenteeism; 
  • implement an extended-year graduation rate; and
  • expand access to a college- and career-ready curriculum. 

This brief focuses on state efforts to build a positive school climate. For the full report, go here


The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed in December 2015, gives states the opportunity to create new approaches to school accountability and continuous improvement. These approaches, if informed by well-chosen indicators of school opportunity and performance, have the potential to create more inclusive and equitable learning environments for historically underserved students. 

Along with measures of academic achievement (student performance on state assessments in English language arts and mathematics, which may include growth in proficiency), graduation rates, and English language proficiency, ESSA requires states to include at least one indicator of school quality or student success. 

All indicators must provide valid, reliable, and comparable information within each state’s accountability system. States then use school performance on these indicators to identify schools for either comprehensive support and improvement or targeted support and improvement. Districts with such schools can use data from statewide indicators to inform the needs assessments and school improvement plans required under ESSA. States can also select additional indicators to use as part of their broader continuous school improvement efforts across all schools, regardless of identification status.

Now that all states have received approval from the U.S. Department of Education for their plans for statewide accountability and improvement systems, a number of states are taking advantage of the opportunities provided by ESSA to measure the extent to which their students are supported and provided with equitable educational opportunities. 

This brief specifies which states are making efforts to build positive school climates in their ESSA plans and describes how some states intend to measure and use information from this indicator to create more equitable and inclusive learning environments for all students.This section draws on Melnick, H., Cook-Harvey, C. M., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Encouraging social and emotional learning in the context of new accountability. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. 

Building a Positive School Climate

School climate is often thought of as “how a school feels”; that is, whether it feels safe and supportive for students, staff, and families. A positive school climate reflects a school’s “norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures.”National School Climate Center. (n.d.). What is school climate? (accessed 02/14/18). Social-emotional learning (SEL) supports a positive school climate. Explicit teaching of social-emotional competencies allows children and adults to “acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”Center for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (n.d.). What is SEL? School climate and SEL are linked because, as students and school personnel refine their social and emotional competence, school climate improves, just as the existence of a positive school climate creates the atmosphere within which SEL can take place.Jennings, P. A., & Greenberg, M. T. (2009). The prosocial classroom: Teacher social and emotional competence in relation to student and classroom outcomes. Review of Educational Research, 79(1), 491–525.

A positive school climate can be measured in an accountability and improvement system through student surveys and on-site reviews of practice, such as School Quality Reviews, during which teams observe classrooms and the organization of the school as a whole and receive feedback from families and school leaders in order to provide action steps to better serve students. Surveys typically measure a school’s safety; relationships among students, staff, and families; the teaching and learning environment; and institutional factors, such as facility quality or resource availability.Garibaldi, M., Ruddy, S., Kendziora, K., & Osher, D. (2015). “Assessment of climate and conditions for learning” in Durlak, J. A., Domitrovich, C. E., Weissberg, R. P., & Gullotta, T. P. (Eds.). Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice. New York, NY: Guilford Press. Surveys may also measure the degree to which a school is supportive of students’ social and emotional development by, for example, helping them learn to resolve conflicts with peers. Disaggregation of survey results by subgroup is important because student experiences often vary significantly, even within a single school.Hough, H. J., Kalogrides, D., & Loeb, S. (2017). Using surveys of students’ social-emotional learning and school climate for accountability and continuous improvement. Stanford, CA: Policy Analysis for California Education.

Individual students’ social and emotional skills can also be measured for school-level improvement purposes through surveys, teacher observation tools such as rubrics, or performance assessments.Melnick, H., Cook-Harvey, C. M., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Encouraging social and emotional learning in the context of new accountability. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. Such surveys can measure whether students feel—or their teachers perceive—they have learned to identify their own emotions and strengths (self-awareness); are able to persevere even when they feel frustrated (self-management); can feel empathy and learn from people with other opinions or experiences (social awareness); and are able to interact productively in interpersonal relationships, including resolving conflicts (relationship skills). However, researchers caution that data from these measures should not be used for high-stakes purposes, such as school identification, because student-level assessments could become distorted under high-stakes conditions, putting pressure on students or adults to report their self-perceptions or perceptions of others less honestly, and are better suited for improvement purposes.

Measuring school climate can shine a light on important school practices that are often overlooked and can send a signal from the state to districts and schools that creating a positive school environment in which students feel safe and connected is a priority. This attention may incentivize the development of positive school cultures through improved teaching strategies and schoolwide initiatives in which students are supported socially, emotionally, and academically. Analysis of disaggregated results may lead to intervention and support opportunities for the least engaged youth or subgroups of students disproportionately impacted. A focus on school climate can also encourage educators to create a more welcoming environment for effective family engagement. 

Eight states are measuring school climate in their accountability system by using student surveys (see Figure 1). Six of these states are also using data from these surveys to inform their school improvement efforts. Sixteen additional states describe strategies for improving school climate in schools identified for support and improvement or as part of a broader statewide effort. For example, six of these statesThese states are Arizona, Arkansas, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Missouri. are providing technical assistance to schools that includes evidence-based strategies for improving school climate, and nine statesThese states are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Vermont. are supporting the diagnostic/self-assessment process at the school level to identify areas of improvement as they relate to school climate. 

Although not specifically using school climate data for accountability or improvement purposes, 12 additional states describe efforts to make school climate data available. Six of these states will report information from student survey data. While the remaining six states do not provide details as to which measures of school climate will be reported, under ESSA all states are required to collect and report on rates of in-school and out-of-school suspensions; expulsions; school-related arrests; referrals to law enforcement; and incidences of school violence, including bullying and harassment. Therefore all states will have these school climate data available. 

Finally, 11 states explicitly mention providing resources and support to schools to improve students’ social and emotional learning. Five of these states are including addressing student social and emotional learning as a part of their overall school improvement support efforts.These states are Arkansas, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Rhode Island.

Selected State Approaches: Iowa, Maryland, and Ohio 

Iowa measures school climate through the Iowa Youth Survey: Conditions for Learning. The survey asks students about their engagement, views of school, and feelings of safety on campus. It is given to students biannually as part of a broader Iowa Safe and Supportive Schools measure that includes surveys of students, staff, and parents. Because indicators in the accountability plan must be able to be disaggregated by student subgroups, only the student responses from this set of surveys are included in the state’s ESSA accountability plan. The Iowa Department of Education implements the student survey in collaboration with the Iowa Department of Public Health for grades 5 through 12. Iowa has a process and timeline to adapt the survey to apply to students in grades 3 and 4 with potential companion staff and parent/guardian surveys.Iowa Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Consolidated State Plan. Des Moines, IA: Iowa Department of Education.

Maryland is using school climate surveys of students and educators as an accountability indicator in all grades. The state is currently collaborating with REL Mid-Atlantic and Mathematica to develop the appropriate survey instrument. Both student and educator surveys will include items in the same four domains: relationships, safety, engagement, and environment. These domains include the following subtopics: cultural and linguistic competence, relationships, school participation, emotional safety, physical safety, bullying, substance abuse, emergency readiness, physical environment, instructional environment, physical health, mental health, and discipline.National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments. (2018). ED School Climate Surveys (EDSCLS). Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research. To respond to the data provided by school climate and other indicators, the Maryland Department of Education will develop and implement a multitiered system of support that will include partnerships between schools and community members to further sustain conflict resolution programs, reduce and eliminate disproportionality in discipline, provide a Youth Mental Health First Aid curriculum for staff, and implement wraparound services. 

The Ohio Department of Education is structuring a portion of the state’s Title IV, Part A funds to pilot different school climate surveys including of students and possibly educators and/or parents as well. By helping schools implement the surveys, the state will also test each survey’s feasibility for statewide use. Ohio fosters school climate improvement using the Ohio School Climate Guidelines, which list key benchmarks, such as measuring student engagement, parental involvement, and community connection with the school. These guidelines also list suggested strategies schools and districts can use to improve schools’ climate, such as encouraging teachers to greet students by name when they enter the classroom, make time for students to reflect on what they have learned, and maintain contact with parents.Ohio School Climate Guidelines. Columbus, OH: Ohio Department of Education. Ohio uses the guidelines as a framework for supporting professional development and information dissemination at the district level. To address other aspects of school climate, Ohio publishes an anti-bullying guidance document and offers training and technical assistance to help schools monitor the broad impact of harassment, intimidation, and bullying.Gayl, C. (2017). How state planning for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) can promote student academic, social, and emotional learning: An examination of five key strategies. Chicago, IL: The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. The state also reports student-level school discipline data on report cards published on the Department of Education’s website. Finally, the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services works on three grant initiatives that specifically focus on the use of collaborative efforts between school staff and community partners to create safe and secure schools and promote behavioral and mental wellness among students.Ohio Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Consolidated State Plan. Columbus, OH: Ohio Department of Education. 

Ohio is also one of a significant number of states participating in the Collaborating States Initiative, in which states partner with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning to develop a plan to meet the unique needs of their students and families and to identify resources and best practices. These resources can include restorative justice discipline strategies, strategies to improve cultural competence and promote culturally relevant curriculums, and trauma-informed education approaches.

Policy Considerations for Implementation

States and districts can help schools improve their climate by:

  • Leveraging school improvement funding or Title IV grants under ESSA to implement school climate surveys and improve school climate and SEL strategies. Local education agencies can partner with community-based organizations to create or build on existing interventions regarding youth development, parent engagement, and/or mental and behavioral health.Gayl, C. (2017). How state planning for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) can promote student academic, social, and emotional learning: An examination of five key strategies. Chicago, IL: The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
  • Identifying ways to acknowledge success and share best practices of schools that have improved school climate, including support for conferences and peer networks among schools to share strategies that work. 
  • Providing schools with resources and technical assistance as they seek to interpret school climate surveys and develop responses to what they find. Staff need to be trained in the analysis of the data they collect and the implementation of high-quality programs, professional development, and school organizational changes that support students’ development based upon that analysis. State-level support may include technical assistance for program development, widely available professional development, and the provision of state and federal funding to support schools’ efforts.Melnick, H., Cook-Harvey, C., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Encouraging social and emotional learning in the context of new accountability. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.  

Resources for School Climate

  • School Climate Guide for District Policymakers and Education Leaders (Center for Social and Emotional Education and the National School Boards Association)
    This guide highlights districts that are using the National School Climate Standards and provides a framework state decision makers can follow to utilize school climate measures.Pickeral, T., Evans, L., Hughes, W., & Hutchison, D. (2009). School climate guide for district policymakers and educational leaders. New York, NY: Center for Social and Emotional Education. 
  • School Climate Measurement and Analysis (National School Climate Center)
    This brief by the National School Climate Center provides practical advice for schools that are trying to implement measures of school climate and effectively use student responses to improve student achievement.Faster, D., & Lopez, D. (2013). School climate measurement and analysis. New York, NY: National School Climate Center.
  • Safe Space Kit (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network)
    This guide to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students in schools provides steps for schools to build safe spaces as well as resources to help students become allies to LGBT students. 

To see a state-by-state summary on how states are using a School Climate indicator, see page 7 of this downloadable brief or explore this interactive map for individual state information.

Building a Positive School Climate: Making ESSA’s Equity Promise Real: State Strategies to Close the Opportunity Gap by Stephen Kostyo, Jessica Cardichon, and Linda Darling-Hammond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation. LPI’s work in this area is also supported by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation; the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation; and the Sandler Foundation.