Learning environments play critical role in student success

Learning environments play critical role in student success

(Calif.) In any context, findings from a survey question recently asked by YouthTruth should be troubling – about half of high school students do not perceive their teachers as a source of ongoing support and motivation.

When asked the same question, just a third of middle school students felt the same way and only 15 percent of elementary school students agreed.

 “The way I interpret the findings, at the middle and elementary school, students feel that their teachers are asking them to keep at it when the material gets tough,” she said. “At high school  they’re saying, ‘OK, you didn’t get it, just move on,"  said Amy Gerstein, executive director of the John W. Gardner Center at Stanford University’s school of education, which specializes in research into youth development and the challenges related to learning environments.

The finding is one of many in a poll examining the perceptions of 183,000 K-12 students on academic rigor conducted by YouthTruth, a nonprofit student survey organization. Why secondary students feel the way they do could be attributed to a number of factors, experts said.

The teacher-to-student ratio in most modern high schools is far greater than most middle and elementary schools and the restless pace of class schedules both conspire against teachers getting to know many of their students well.

There’s also a theory that a large percentage of high school teachers believe that their students should be motivating themselves and that nurturing too much would be a disservice to the students as they prepare for far more competitive and isolat instruction at colleges and universities.

Still, the growing body of evidence that links higher student performance with positive learning environments is hard to ignore. Research shows that students perform better when they not only feel safe and supported but also challenged and accepted.

That is, when school administrators focus on improving school climate, students  overall are more likely to engage in the curriculum, achieve academically and develop positive relationships not just with the teaching staff but also their peers and, in turn, the community as a whole.

As a result, policymakers in many states and on a national level are putting greater emphasis on improving school climate and integrating the concept into district performance systems.

Congress, for instance, in passing the Every Student Succeeds Act late last year, gave states new flexibility to create their own definitions of school and student success and the freedom to construct their own vehicles for measuring performance. But ESSA also requires states to include at least one evaluation indicator of “school quality” – which could be student engagement, access to advanced course work, college readiness or school climate.

In California, where work on a new accountability system has advanced as far as anywhere, state officials are making school climate an important part of their new evaluation matrix.

First, the Legislature included school climate as one of the educational priorities for which districts must establish goals and report on through Local Control Accountability Plans. Secondly, the state board of education is close to finalizing an evaluation matrix that will require schools and districts to meet benchmarks for test scores and graduation rates along with suspension rates and chronic absenteeism.

Creating a model school climate, however, involves many more factors. According to a March guide from the U.S. Department of Education, school climate “reflects attention to fostering social and physical safety, providing support that enables students and staff to realize high behavioral and academic standards as well as encouraging and maintaining respectful, trusting and caring relationships throughout the school and community.”

One key to understanding the current climate is to ask the students and listen to the answers, said Jen Vorse Wilka, executive director of YouthTruth.

She pointed out that students are the ones most affected by school policy but typically are not asked their opinion.

Wilka said they spend a lot of time with schools and districts analyzing survey results and helping them interpret the data. "What we can’t do is say why students felt a certain way." she explained. "Therefore we encourage schools to contextualize their student perception data within their broader context – and use it to spark further conversations with students."

In the new poll on academic rigor, students were asked to repond to the question: "My teachers don’t let me give up when the work gets hard.” 

Gerstein said the Gardner Center also uses student interviews and surveys as part of assessment of learning environments.

“We try to understand how students perceive their relationship to schools, teachers and a number of factors that influence motivation and their capacity to learn,” she said. “Their sense of belonging,” she said. “Their sense of safety, their sense of connectedness to school – all of those things are really important dimensions of youth development.”

An example might be Latino males in the 11th grade, who might feel less safe on campus than their white counterparts at a school. She said it often also turns out that Latino males are also the lowest achieving population at some schools. "What's important is the link between achievement and these youth development constructs that we measure," she explained. "That's the most important and actionable piece of the research. Yes, we can figure out which subgroups are most at risk and that will vary from community to community. "

“It turns out that having a relationship with a caring adult turns out to be very important,” Gerstein said. “It’s a protective factor and critical to long-term health and success.”