In High-Poverty Schools, Principals Are Key to a Positive Climate for Teaching and Learning

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Recently, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center and Education Week released Quality Counts 2013, an annual look at state policies and indicators related to student success. Released in conjunction with the Civil Rights Project’s conference on disparities in school discipline, this year’s Quality Counts report contains a special focus on school safety, climate, and discipline. The results suggest that teachers, especially in high-poverty schools, are struggling with issues of climate and safety. When it comes to these issues, school leaders have a crucial role to play in creating a positive school environment and in supporting teachers.

The EPE Research Center surveyed a non-representative sample of more than 1,300 teachers and administrators about climate, safety, and discipline in their schools. The results reveal gaps in how teachers and administrators feel about school climate and safety. For example, while 77 percent of administrators strongly agree that their school climate is conducive to teaching and learning, only 48 percent of teachers say the same. And less than 30 percent of teachers, compared with three-quarters of administrators, strongly believe administrators adequately support teachers with respect to managing student behavior.

Concerns about school climate are especially acute in high-poverty schools. While 83 percent of educators at low-poverty schools strongly agree that students and staff feel safe and 72 percent say the school climate is conducive to teaching and learning, only 46 percent and 35 percent of educators in high-poverty schools strongly agree, respectively, with those two statements. Teachers in high-poverty schools say they struggle more with behavioral issues, and how to manage them while providing quality instruction.

The Education Trust’s work with high-poverty, high-performing schools makes it clear that principals have the power, and the responsibility, to improve a school’s climate and to ensure that all staff feel prepared to handle issues of student discipline. Recognizing that student behavior is often driven by teachers’ behavior and attitudes, successful principals work with teachers to learn about and incorporate constructive ways of handling student misbehavior — ways that keep students in the classroom instead of sitting at home enduring a suspension. Leaders in these schools also recognize that, by building respectful relationships among administrators, teachers, students, and families; and by providing behavioral supports for their teachers, they can create a climate that is conducive to student success. Other principals can — and must — learn from and replicate these practices to help their teachers, students, and schools flourish.

— Allison Horowitz