The Urgency of Addressing Both Sides of the Report Card
Transforming Schools To Become Respectful School Environments
“While schools must rightly focus their attention on standards and high achievement, they will not be able to meet the goal of increasing student achievement without providing a safe, supportive community in which their students can learn. The creation of safe and supportive learning community must be comprehensive, school wide, and woven into the curriculum and culture of the school. It cannot be an add-on effort, satisfied by special programs to address specific topics such as bullying, character education, or dispute resolution.”
Learning First Alliance
Every Child Learning: Safe and Supportive Schools, 2001
The education community is hoping that recent school reform efforts will improve students’ academic progress and close the education gap, but research now strongly indicates that unless such efforts also focus on crucial environmental factors which dramatically affect academic progress, these efforts will never deliver more than limited success.
Environmental factors that determine whether or not a student feels safe and valued, conditions that are essential for students’ academic achievement as well as their healthy personal growth, must be addressed and prioritized as make-or-break determinates of academic success, teacher retention, teacher satisfaction, in fact the overall success of schools.
Dedicated efforts to improve school environments so that teachers and students truly feel safe, respected, and trusted by one another, need to be pursued with an urgency equal to efforts dedicated to assuring the excellence of teachers’ skills, competencies and curricula – if we are ever to see a time in which “no child is left behind”.
Rigorous tracking and evaluation of schools’ efforts to assure a positive learning environment are at least as important as the tracking of academic success, since the latter evolves only if the former exists.
In short, a commitment by schools to improve the academic side of the report card must be matched by an equal commitment to address the affective side, the “other side of the report card”, reflecting the character, integrity and wholesomeness of the students, as well as the prevalence of such character traits of the student body in general.
Addressing these factors requires a shift in perspective, and a reallocation of resources, by schools who rely almost exclusively on pedagogical cures to remedy students’ failure to meet academic expectations and standards. Schools must also take responsibility, with absolute seriousness, for creating an environment conducive to learning, which involves much more than improving rigor in academic instruction. It means that schools must become accountable to a variety of measurements that indicate the degree of their success, or lack thereof, in creating a positive, respectful and nurturing school environment.
The introduction of safety measures such as the installation of metal detectors, uniformed guards, and punitive zero-tolerance policies, might temporarily help address emergency situations, but such measures ultimately will not aid in the process of school transformation of the kind that must be sought. Indeed, many administrators agree that such strategies can frequently engender the opposite effect to the one intended; increased tension, mistrust and stress among students and teachers, all of which have a negative effect on academic progress.
A positive school climate can only be created by virtue of an enthusiastic embrace by faculty and staff, as well as students, of efforts to proactively improve school climate. Once the need for improvement is fully recognized and given top priority, then the implementation of new programs, new school policies, new traditions and strategies can begin to take effect.
Some new elements of school life might include school-wide participation in gatherings, assemblies and service to the community activities. Others will be incorporated on a class-by-class basis, part of the daily life of students, and imbedded in regular classroom curricula. Some of these elements will give students the tools to interact compassionately, to walk in each other’s shoes, and treat each other with respect. Some elements teach students to accept differences between themselves and their peers, resolve conflict peacefully, value themselves for their intrinsic worth and generally treat each other, and their teachers, with kindness, trust and respect.
Changes in such dimensions of school climate can be measured through surveys that generate “soft” data that rely on surveys to track the opinion of students and teachers who report on changes that make them feel more or less safe, valued, respected and trusted. Such soft data is invaluable, but only part of the story.
The other part refers to “hard” data (concrete facts, as opposed to attitudes and opinions) which measure changes due to the implementation of new strategies and programs. Such data will accurately report on, for example, the diminution of disciplinary actions, reduced student suspensions and expulsions, a change in the percentage of engaged classroom time, better or worse attendance records and students’ academic prowess as measured by improvement in standardized test scores. Together, such hard and soft data can accurately document school climate improvement and the effects of such improvement on academic, behavioral, and attitudinal outcomes being sought.
Perhaps equally importantly, students who graduate from schools which have successfully improved their climate will be far more likely to become productive, positive, and contributing adult members of society.
Some Research That Supports The Above Premises:
Research has started to document the factors that can produce such results, and illuminate their crucial importance in supporting student achievement and the healthy growth of the whole child. Examples include:
• A research overview of over 300 studies, conducted by Joseph Durlak of Loyola University and Roger Weissberg of CASEL and the University of Illinois (2005), indicates that social and emotional learning programs significantly improve students' academic performance. The study shows, for example, that an average student enrolled in a social and emotional learning program ranks at least 10 percentage points higher on achievement tests than students who do not participate in such programs.
• High school students reported in a 2003 Public Agenda study teachers spend more time dealing with classroom management issues than instruction and that only 1/3 of their peers show respect to teachers.
• In 2002, the University of Chicago studied schools with the greatest and least gains in standardized testing over five years. They found that schools where teachers and students reported a high level of trust were three times more likely to show significant gains in math and reading test scores.
• A 2003 RAND reports that up to 50 percent of youth today witness acts of serious violence in the school or community and unless they are offered skills to cope and address such issues they will be adversely impacted through adulthood.
Taken as a whole, studies focusing on “the other side of the report card” have helped to establish that poor school culture, not academic success of students, are the primary reason for student drop out rates, low student attendance, high teacher burn out/drop out rates.
Improving School Culture: Proactively Addressing “The Other Side of the Report Card”
Operation Respect hosted a symposium in June 2005 on “What Works” to create and sustain a school environment and an academic approach that can counter and, in large part, eliminate factors that work against academic success in schools. This symposium has given us at least a partial, preliminary, answers and a clue as to how we might approach the task of truly moving educational practice to make sure that no child is left behind.
Core findings from the Symposium, which are consistent with the latest research, include:
• There is no single program that can alter and sustain the kind of change needed for ongoing academic improvement of students, and close the “education gap”.
• A multi-faceted approach is absolutely necessary to employ, integrating various strategies which can create and sustain an environment conducive to learning, in which teaching can be successful, and academics can improve. Such strategies involve a host of areas including character education, service learning, school readiness, parent engagement, social-emotional learning, conflict resolution, and so on.
• Willing, enthusiastic, buy-in by teachers and school leadership to commit to a multi-year effort aimed at transforming the school’s environment is absolutely necessary if continuous and growing improvement in students’ academic progress is to be expected.
• Mandated changes with forced teacher compliance, rather than sincere, enthusiastic embrace of such efforts to transform a school culture, are doomed to failure.
No One Answer
The bottom line is that there no one answer - no curriculum, no single intervention, alteration, or practice - that can alter and sustain the kind of change needed for ongoing academic improvement of students, and enable America to close the “achievement gap”. As a result, a multi-faceted approach is absolutely necessary to integrate the various programs and strategies that together, can assure students an educational environment that is conducive to learning.
For many practitioners, administrators, and others devoted to students’ health, education, and welfare, the results of the Symposium not only confirmed their intuitive sense of “What Works” but also seemed obvious. For others, because the results intrinsically demand attention to efforts that seem somewhat unrelated to academic achievement – the driving force behind educational decision-making and resource allocation at this time – they were as confusing as they were “enlightening” and posed problems of execution as daunting as the faulted system they inherently criticized.
Changing School Culture: The Will But No Clear Way
Advocates for focusing on “the other side of the report card” and implementing strategies and programs that improve school environment, have many important allies: Educators do generally agree on the seriousness of negative student attitudes and destructive behaviors that are both the cause of, and the result of, unsafe and fractious school environments. The awareness of the importance of this problem, and its devastating effects on academic and personal growth of students, has fueled a strong commitment on the part of educators and administrators to address such problems as a top priority.
……but No Clear Way
However, what educators do not yet have is an agreed-upon approach or a series of strategies to address and solve the problem. Neither has there been an attempt to find agreement on the desired outcomes from such approaches and, therefore, there is no general agreement on the dimensions that should be measured to track the success of such efforts.
Operation Respect’s Former Path, Present Opportunities, and Future Path
The Past and Present
Operation Respect, up to this point in time, has been mainly focused on alerting the major stakeholders and organizations in the educational field to the seriousness of problems that are caused by negative school environments and hostile student behavior. Additionally, OR has offered a partial, beginning, solution to such problems through the implementation of its “Don’t Laugh At Me” Program (DLAM) offered free through the generosity of The Mc-Graw Hill Companies. The reputation of OR as an advocate for positive educational change, as well the fine reputation of its limited, but highly respected DLAM Program, has allowed OR to evolve into an organization that might look forward to a larger and more effective role.
OR can, and should, grow in its capacity to be a leader among organizations that offer different, but effective, strategies; ones who seek similar objectives and embrace a similar mission. It is time for Operation Respect to apply its resources to address the big picture rather than continuing to focus on the meaningful, but limited, objectives of the past.
Having sparked the willingness of, literally, hundreds of thousands of school leaders to work towards positive change, OR has built the foundation of strong relationships to move on to next steps. It is time to unite with allies, who, mutually and cooperatively, wish to bend their efforts to make sure that educational practice addresses both sides of the report card,
How OR Must Forge Its Future Path: With Others
Other organizations who have made similar inroads to those of DLAM should be approached as potential collaborators with OR, combine their various strengths and thereby sustain and cementing the work that each one of them has initiated.OR should look for collaborative co-leaders in an overarching effort to build a network committed to uniting its efforts in the service of school transformation, improved academic performance of students, and the closing of the education gap.
No Silver Bullet: Together, We Can Succeed
We are not alone. Dozens of effective programs related to “the other side of the report card” have bombarded school leaders for years with their approaches that address only one aspect of what is necessary to improve school culture. They, like DLAM, can no longer characterize their efforts as being sufficient to produce the changes needed. In other words, all of the organizations working towards the same objectives as OR, must cease to think of themselves, and any others, as “a silver bullet.”
Together, and only together, organizations such as OR must create a common and easily accessible approach to creating the school environments we all desire. Simply stated, the “other side of the report card” organizations must accept their limitations, drop their organizational egos, and work together, creatively and synergistically.
The Future Role of Operation Respect
Building On OR’s Past Strengths
Based on the recognition of OR’s strengths, as well as our limitations Operation Respect could assume an appropriate leadership role by respectfully and humbly issuing a call to action, inviting other effective organizations, programs, and leadership groups to join together with us, and with each other.
Three Strands Of Focus For OR : NCLB Re-Authorization, Collaborative Efforts, A Growing Advocacy and Awareness
• Advocate for revisions in the re-authorization of the “No Child Left Behind Act” that would incorporate standards and measurements of school and district outcomes related to behavioral and attitudinal data, as well as hard data, on school’s success (or failure) to create safe, respectful school climates -- thereby addressing and prioritizing “the other side of the report card.”
• Create a common language and framework for inter-organizational collaboration, and thereby prove, by example, in various pilot sites across the country, the efficacy of a collaborative approach to the transformation of school culture,
• Build a broad advocacy and awareness, locally and nationally, by virtue of the above two efforts, of the importance of schools’ addressing, and being accountable for the prioritization of “the other side of the report card” and the kinds of successes possible when incorporating a collaborative approach. Such an advocacy will be its own powerful step towards the ultimate adoption of an educational approach, across the United States, and beyond, that aims to teach the whole child and address both sides of the report card with equal priority and commitment.
Advocating for Revisions to No Child Left Behind
There is general agreement among educators in the United States that the overarching objectives of the No Child Behind Act of 2001 are laudable. The focus on academics and accompanying accountability provisions has refocused the education community on ensuring every child learns at the highest standards. Unfortunately, this focus on academics has forced educators to zero in on classroom learning at the expense of the learning environment. The invaluable lessons learned by creating positive relationships in schools often lost in the pressures of standardized testing.
Therefore, it is appropriate that the many organizations that are dedicated to the health, education and welfare of children and youths in America help take stock of NCLB’s progress and join in an essential dialogue that can hopefully bring the achievements of NCLB to their fullest potential, moving as swiftly as possible towards its stated goals. These leaders look to ensure that the standards movement not only looks at academic grades, but at “the other side of the report card” as well.
A Call To Action: Improving The Methodology of NCLB in the Reauthorization of NCLB, 2007 and/or Beyond.
If we, as advocates for education, come to a common agreement on language that expresses the premise, above, we might make our collective voices heard, and successfully alert Congress, and those who advise and counsel members of Congress on their decisions, to include – in the reauthorization of NCLB in 2007 and/or beyond – standards of accountability by schools that relate to their insuring an environment for students that is conducive to academic pursuit and achievement; that allows children and youths to feel safe and valued – that addresses the “Other Side Of The Report Card”
Create a Common Language and Framework
Convening the other leaders in the field would lead to a set of common tools and resources that could enable districts and/or schools to assess their school culture. In so doing, they could identify how to most efficiently and effectively target limited resources on behalf of efforts that would lead to meaningful change. The common language, tools and resources would incorporate their interests and expertise of all partners, enabling them to identify opportunities to work with districts and/or schools that have made a mutual, proactive, decision to improve school culture.
Build Awareness and Support for “The Other Side of the Report Card”
The advocacy efforts around No Child Left behind and the convening of stakeholders to create a common framework will naturally lead to increased awareness of the importance of this work. A purposeful campaign must be waged around these efforts to build upon the momentum they generate in the education community and public at-large around “the other side of the report card.” Etc. etc.
Operation Respect is poised to play an important national role seven years after its inception. The organizational leadership must act now, recognizing the importance of improving school culture on academic success. It must do its utmost to fill the leadership vacuum that currently exists to develop collaborative efforts with an appropriate action strategy.
This requires a careful analysis of the current organizational outcomes and structure, as well as the external school reform environment as it relates to “the other side of the report card.” In this process, there must be mutual understanding that our efforts are mission driven, not “star” driven, and all decisions need to reflect our common purpose: to empower and improve the lives of students and educators. Making decisions with this in mind will enable Operation Respect to create partnerships and an organizational structure that profoundly impact the lives of children every single day.