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Students, Respect, and the Learning Environment Surveys

New York City recently released the results for its Learning Environment Surveys, and they tell us something interesting about students and respect. The Department of Education administers the survey annually to parents, teachers, and secondary school students. The 410,000 students who completed the survey were asked to characterize their school experience by agreeing or disagreeing (or strongly agreeing/disagreeing) with various statements. Aggregate answers were then scored from 1-10.

Students reserved the lowest scores for issues of respect.

Most students in my school:

  • treat each other with respect: 4.8
  • just look out for themselves: 3.7
  • help and care about each other: 4.9
  • treat teachers with respect: 4.8 [1]

Only one other question, about hands-on learning, scored in the 4’s, possibly reflecting the consequences of the test-prep culture.

The average score for all other questions, meanwhile, was 6.8.

I doubt if disrespect is more endemic to NYC schools than elsewhere, but it is clearly a problem. It’s not that kids are nasty by nature. They aren’t. But we live in a solipsistic nation (see here for example), so that schools that don’t explicitly nurture respect and all the other civic values (like integrity, courage, and perseverance) tend not to see enough of them. And that leads to a host of problems, from bullying and the occasional fight, to the whole panoply of lower-level distractions that keep kids from doing the best they can in school. Ultimately, a lack of respect hampers student achievement and doesn’t bode well for our future citizens.

Of course, there are ways to encourage more respectful environments, and some schools have clearly done it. Middle schools are ground zero for disrespect, and yet look at the scores that students gave their schools at MS319:

Most students in my school:

  • treat each other with respect: 6.9
  • just look out for themselves: 4.8
  • help and care about each other: 7
  • treat teachers with respect: 7

So why do students feel so respected at MS319? Two things about this school stand out.

First, everyone works together. Last year MS319 was awarded the UFT’s School Partnership Award, which is given to schools that have nurtured a culture of collaboration. Teachers and parents clearly play meaningful roles in shaping the direction in this school takes, and that engagement is reflected in the school’s Learning Environment Survey.

Second, MS319 did for respect what other schools, driven by accountability worries, often will do only for tests: it made respect a top priority in the school. Here is a description of the “Adolescent Development Supports” available at MS319:

  • Advisory: While the school formerly used a 15:1 advisory system for all students, the school now conducts advisory efforts in a more targeted and focused way two times per week for selected students based on evidenced needs.
    • All students participate in clubs that function like an advisory and are selected by each student based on individual interest. These include clubs such as a French club, basketball, women in sports, TICA (all girls Teenagers in Community Awareness), baseball, Japanese, sign language, and others. These clubs are held two mornings per week in the zero period for all students.
    • All advisory teachers meet on Fridays with the guidance counselor and pupil personnel secretary to add value to the content of the advisory work. This year Children’s Aid Society staffers will join this meeting.
  • Uniforms: A progressive system of uniform use is in place for 100% of the student population. This progressive uniform-use model has sixth graders with fewer requirements, seventh grade requirements becoming more complex (e.g., jackets and ties added), and eighth grade being most complex and ‘professional’ looking (e.g., ties vary from other grades – they pass these ties to the seventh graders in a symbolic and emotional ceremony when they graduate).
  • Student leadership: A student government system provides students with opportunities to express their wants and needs and help turn them into actions within the school.
  • Mentorship and extra-curricular activities: An extracurricular baseball team addresses student need for male mentorship and is led by a male parent coordinator. There is a girls’ volleyball team conducted before and after school. Extracurricular academic programs are offered as well, including those for mathematics, science, social studies, literacy, special science inquiry (a 3:1 program), and track and field.
  • Student incentives: Within the clinic model and in use in the school as a whole, an incentive program for students consisting of tickets is used to reinforce use of accountable talk, habits of mind, and improvement in performance. Tickets are in turn exchanged for prizes.
  • School meetings and traditions: All students meet as a grade with the grade team advocate and have focus themes such as social justice, transition to high school, next steps in learning, and core value principles such as perseverance, achievement and excellence. At this meeting, students are selected for student of the month prize.
    • A Town Hall meeting is conducted once a week supervised by the mini-school (grade) team advocate and assistant principal, a variety of teachers and guests.
    • Career day, Valentines Day, math marathon, Poem in Your Pocket day and other events are celebrated to encourage engagement in the school community.

Lots of schools have isolated programs. What emerges from a close reading of this description is that MS319 has vision, a focus, a plan. And that kind of commitment has paid off: over the past four years, ELA passing rates have moved from 20 to 60 and in Math from 34 to 67.

The pieces needed to create more MS319’s are not yet in place in NYC, but they do exist: good teachers, willing communities, systems (computer systems, organizational structures) that could be put to the service of creating better school cultures. But ours is a top down world. Putting the pieces together will take leadership that is willing to both provide the supports needed to create great environments, and willing as well to signal that this ought to be a focus, consistently, in our schools.

[1] Interestingly enough, when asked if teachers treat students with respect, students citywide gave their teachers a significantly higher score than they gave their classmates: 6.6.



  • 1 Remainders: A light reading list for edu-nerds’ summer breaks | GothamSchools
    · Jul 9, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    […] UFT rep takes a closer look at what students said about respect at their schools on the DOE’s […]

  • 2 Jude
    · Jul 29, 2009 at 9:50 am

    As a teacher in training, the parent of a high school student, and a former human resources professional in the field of diversity and inclusion, I am particularly interested in what schools are doing to create a respectful learning environment. Your July 9th article describing MS319’s results on the recently released, Learning Environment Survey I believe correctly identifies explicit leadership commitment as the key factor that is necessary to create an environment in which all stakeholders feel engaged, welcomed and safe. Whether the setting is a classroom, boardroom or a workplace cubicle, demonstrated support from top leaders in the organization together with shared accountabilities for building and maintaining a culture of respect are the common factors among organizations that achieve measurable success towards this objective.

    Numerous studies point to the relationship between a student’s sense of “community” in school and a broad range of desirable academic and behavioral outcomes (Shaps, E., 2009, March) . In his recently published article, “Creating Caring School Communities”, Eric Shaps president of the Developmental Studies Center in Oakland, CA describes a caring school community as “an inclusive web of respectful, supportive relationships among and between students, teachers and parents.” (Schaps, E., 2009, March). Evidence of these types of relationships is reflected in the description of the “Adolescent Development Supports” available at MS319. Also indicative of an inclusive environment at MS319 are the responses by students, teachers and parents to a number of other survey questions that I feel strongly correlate with the higher ratings given to respect. Although there are too many to list, the following stand out as a sample:

    • 94% of the MS319 student respondents agreed (59% strongly agreed) that they “feel welcomed at school”.
    • 94 percent of student respondents agreed (66% strongly agreed) that there is a person or program at school that helps to resolve conflicts
    • 94% of student respondents disagreed (81% strongly) that there is conflict at school based on race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or disabilities
    • 94% of the student respondents agreed (75% strongly) that adults at school treat each another with respect.
    • 88% of student respondents agreed that teachers treat students with respect
    • 95% of teachers responding agreed (51% strongly) that “most teachers work together to improve instruction”
    • 98% of teachers responding agreed that “leaders communicate a clear vision for the school”
    • 95% of teachers responding agreed that “school leaders encourage collaboration among teachers”

    As these results indicate, schools that gain traction in their efforts to create a respectful environment are not successful because they implement a “one-off” program. They achieve the kind of success demonstrated by MS 319’s impressive results by weaving the value of inclusion and respect into the fabric of every plan and action. They communicate this value to students, faculty, parents and other members of the community through clear and consistent messages about what is and is not rewarded, and what is not accepted.

    Schools committed to a respectful environment are also purposeful in the language they use to reinforce and communicate their vision. I see this in our local district’s less frequent use of the word “tolerance”, which implies “putting up with” in favor of the term, “inclusive” to describe the desired standard for behavior and culture in our richly diverse school community. In the context of diversity, “inclusion” speaks to the proactive engagement of, and respect for, every stakeholder. This reflects a growing recognition that the benefits of a rich, diverse learning community are best realized when schools move beyond the goal of “tolerance” to create an inclusive environment that values and leverages differences to everyone’s advantage.

    Diversity is an inescapable reality in today’s global environment and impacts nearly every facet of our political economy and educational life. Learning in a diverse and inclusive school community provides students unique opportunities to strengthen their ability to work comfortably and effectively across a myriad of differences. Schools that demonstrate a genuine commitment to creating an inclusive (and by definition, respectful) environment increase the likelihood that students will be exposed to a broader range of viewpoints, develop to be more comprehensive and creative thinkers, and will be better prepared to excel as adults in challenging work and social environments.

    1. Schaps, E. (2009, March). Creating Caring school communities. Leadership, 38(4), 8-11