Fiske Elementary
First-grade students gather on the carpet for a morning meeting at Fiske Elementary in this 2012 file photo. Credit: File photo

In 2013 the Illinois State Board of Education and the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute asked more than 100,000 teachers and 750,000 middle and high school students a series of questions aimed at determining which schools had the best climate for teaching and learning.

In three of the broad categories – effective leaders, collaborative teachers and ambitious instruction – Chicago Public Schools had higher ratings than other types of school communities across the state, according to a recently released report.

On the negative side, CPS had the lowest percentage of schools with strong family involvement, and, in a related area, it has a significant gap in strengths between predominantly low-income and high-income communities.

“When we’re comparing Chicago to the rest of the state, a lot of positive things come out,” said Molly Gordon, a senior research analyst at the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which analyzed the survey results.

At the same time, CPS has more work to do in engaging families and bridging the gap between high and low-income communities. “Schools in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods are the least organized for improvement,” she said.

The survey covered 85 percent of the state’s schools – regular and charter – offering a preliminary look into what it feels like to be a teacher and a student in Illinois schools and how differences in climate may affect student achievement.

Joshua Klugman, a senior quantitative research analyst at the consortium, said that because they have only one year of data “it’s too early to declare victory or defeat. We can’t nail down causality [between climate and achievement] but it’s an encouraging first look.” He added that principals can still use the data from the survey to focus in on the areas where their school climate needs work.

Based on previous research, the Consortium identified five school climate factors considered critical to student achievement: effective leaders who nurture the school’s social environment; collaborative teachers with access to high-quality human resources and professional development; involved families whom teachers see as partners; a supportive, safe environment where expectations are high and consistent; and ambitious instruction that moves students beyond basic skills.

The strength of these five factors was strongly correlated in CPS elementary schools with higher scores and growth on the state’s reading and math ISAT assessments. In CPS high schools, strong factors were linked to higher attendance rates, higher ACT averages and higher four-year high school graduation rates, a result that was not as strong outside of Chicago, indicating a need for more research.

Researchers suggested that the value of strong school climate elements relies on integrating the five parts together and that effective leadership, for which CPS was rated high, must come first for the others to follow suit.

The link between lower socioeconomic status and a weaker school climate was particularly evident within CPS, where 86 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. The Consortium reported that the more economically disadvantaged a school, the more likely it is to be weak in three or more of the survey’s school climate factors. Only one in five CPS schools in the study’s bottom socioeconomic quartile had three or more strong factors, compared to over half of schools in the top quartile. None of the top quartile schools had more than two weak elements.

“CPS is doing a good job insulating schools against the neighborhood, but it’s an issue of family poverty and family economic struggle,” said Klugman, alluding to the district’s average rating for a supportive environment but low rating for family involvement. “Can they overcome the cumulative effects of things like family factors and neighborhoods? That’s the question.”

Individual school reports for CPS are available here.

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