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Dog Bites Man: School Environment Influences Academic Growth

How much do collaboration, mutual respect, and other aspects of the school environment matter for improving outcomes for middle school kids?

Quite a lot, apparently, and it shows in New York City’s data. Every year, the DOE surveys teachers, secondary students, and parents to find out what the school looks like to the people who actually spend time there. Basically, the survey asks whether the school community is a welcoming one that holds high standards, inspires kids to learn, and cultivates collaborative culture. The city tabulates the results, combines them with attendance data and then converts that to a letter grade. In addition, the DOE gives schools a separate letter grade that is based on student progress on state exams from one year to the next.*

Compare those two letter grades — for environment and progress — and what you will find is that environment matters. The better the school community is at working together, the more likely it is that kids will make academic progress. Or to put it more harshly, when the environment deteriorates, so does the education students receive. Seventy-five percent of the middle schools that received an A for environment also received an A for progress on the state exams. That percent gets cut nearly in half, however, when the school environment rates a D. Only forty percent of D-rated environments earned an progress grade of A.

Middle School Environment Grade

Now, I would hazard a guess that very few people reading this blog are much impressed by progress on the state exam, where scores shot up obscenely this past spring. They probably think, as I do, that though our students are doing very well, those scores do not reflect their work. Rather, they are the result of either dumbed-down tests, too much test prep, some kind of statistical phenomenon, or a combination of all three. But in this case, I am looking at comparisons of progress, and not the progress in and of itself. Comparisons show us that in middle schools where there is too little respect, collaboration, inspiration and communication, students didn’t do as well as they did in middle schools where the whole community feels more engaged in its own work.

This was a large sample of schools, and over 220,000 teachers, students, and parents completed the survey. Still, of course, the usual caveats apply. I’m an English teacher, not a statistician. Besides that, compiling this takes a lot of cut and paste, and though I am careful, one never really knows. So, if someone wants to double-check, be my guest.

Update: I neglected to include the five middle schools that received an F for environment.  Of those schools, 0% received an A for progress.


* Along with a third grade for overall achievement, these two letter grades, get rolled into a single final grade, and that is what the public generally reads about in the papers. Those final grades have little meaning for teachers, however because the environment accounts for only 15% of the total. The rest is based on the state exams, and those results have little relevance to our work.


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