What Are the Differences Between High- and Low-Achieving Schools?

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A recently published study out of Florida State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has identified some key differences between high-achieving and low-achieving high schools. The researchers did a year-long comparative case study across four socioeconomically and racially diverse schools in Broward County, Florida. State test scores were used to identify schools as either high-achieving or low-achieving.

The researchers found that in the higher performing schools a deliberate effort was made among the staff to connect with students. In focus groups and interviews, students in the high-performing schools described teachers and staff as “caring” and “involved”. There was also more of an emphasis on getting to know the students and their backgrounds as well as additional extracurricular involvement and an overall positive school climate.

Interestingly, the high- and low-performing schools did not differ across the board. For example, all four schools showed strong internal and external accountability systems. There were also few differences across all four schools in the quality of instruction and use of an aligned curriculum.

So, does this mean that positive school climate is the secret to shrinking the achievement gap? Like all studies, this one had a few important limitations. First, this study was only done across four schools within a specific school district. It is difficult to say whether or not these findings would generalize to all schools across the country. Second, the researchers did not examine the effect of school climate on student achievement, but instead measured both things at the same time. This means that we don’t know if the climate affected achievement or vice versa. There may also be some other unmeasured variable that contributed to both school climate and students’ performance.

However, this is not the first study that points to the relationship between school climate and academic performance. Researchers have also shown that the emotional climate within a classroom can contribute to a student’s academic success and that school climate is related to student behaviors. Districts across the country have even implemented school-wide interventions with the aim of improving school culture and climate.

But what I find most interesting about the Florida study is its emphasis on the relationships between teachers and students. I think that school climate ultimately boils down to the way that teachers and students interact with each other on a daily basis. Do teachers take the time to get to know their students? Do students and staff treat each other with respect? Does social-emotional learning happen every day? For some teachers, fostering a positive relationship with their students is an inherent part of their job; however, other teachers struggle with this due to large class sizes and the pressure to raise test scores. In order to reduce the achievement gap we need to start thinking about how factors beyond instruction and curricula impact students’ academic skills and social-emotional well-being.

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