The concept of human intelligence as a fixed entity, something that may be measured with an IQ test, is giving way to the understanding that human cognition is dependent on context. According to a University of Chicago literature review, the ability to understand and internalize content knowledge and skills “…is an interplay between cognitive and non-cognitive factors.”
The school environment, cultural and social norms in the community, and students’ perceptions can support or inhibit learning. Low performing schools need to look beyond curriculum and address issues that affect school climate, the sense of belonging to the school community, and students’ beliefs about their role in the school and their ability to learn.
Inhibitors to Student Learning
Students must have confidence in their ability to succeed academically. Motivation is dampened when students believe past failure means they are incapable of success. A growth mindset, the belief that success comes with effort and perseverance, develops when students are allowed to take responsibility for their own learning. They need this sense of autonomy so they can rightfully attribute successes to their own efforts, and they must believe the system is fair, and that good grades are dependent on their effort, not some subjective measure applied by a teacher.
Even the most resilient, self-confident students need more than a syllabus, books, and instructions. They need relationships with their peers and teachers. Humans are hardwired to act in social groups, and a sense of connectedness is critical to motivating student learning.
With a sense of belonging, students will find meaning in their work as they understand that their contributions are important to the school community. A negative school climate makes this relatedness difficult. Students may lack the trust necessary to form bonds with others in the school, and this isolation negatively affects academics.
Anxiety and fear will undermine any efforts at improving a school’s performance. Targeted attacks against schools by armed intruders, often disenfranchised students, make national headlines. Statistically, only a minute fraction of districts will ever be affected by this type of violence, but the horrific nature of school shootings drives the conversation about building security. The media’s focus on these events gives the perception that schools are inherently vulnerable places that must be fortified with armed guards, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors. When students and school personnel feel threatened, school performance suffers. Teaching and learning become secondary to safety.
Building administrators understand the need to secure doors and monitor building activities, but measures to harden buildings diverts funds from educational programs and do not necessarily improve security.
The National Association of School Psychologists conducted a review of literature of the impact school security measures have on students. The research shows that overt security measures feed a negative climate. The perception that school is not safe is reinforced by prison-like security. Additionally, the NASP study could not find evidence that increased hardening of buildings reduced incidents of violence.
School Climate and Its Effect on Learning Outcomes
A school’s climate is the day-to-day atmosphere of a building. Over time, the climate creates a culture of norms and expectations. A positive climate is one in which students feel welcome, supported and free to express themselves. When students feel they are part of a supportive community they are less apt to cut classes and will become more engaged in their learning. Conversely, a hostile school climate throws up strong barriers to learning by creating fear, stress and a sense of alienation from the community.
The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments identifies the conditions necessary for a positive school climate as: engagement, safety, and an environment of well-managed classes, suitable facilities, health supports, and clear, fair policies.
The Center cites research that found schools that are strong in these conditions were 10 times more likely than less supportive schools to make substantial gains in math and reading.
The School Principal’s Role
While teachers directly affect academic performance, school leaders impact student learning with measures to improve the school’s climate and culture. A 2009 study on the relationship between school climate and student achievement lays out the steps necessary for developing a culture that supports learning. School principals must begin with an understanding of their school’s current climate. What are the prevalent values, expectations, attitudes, and behaviors?
With a clear picture of the school’s strengths and weaknesses, leaders may clarify existing goals and define new ones. A tenant of the National School Climate Council holds that the school community, teachers, staff, parents, and students, must be involved in the process if they are to appreciate and strive towards these goals. The vision for a school must be a shared vision if it is to be achieved.
With a vision in place, the community must develop a plan to address problems and build on successes. This involves careful consideration on how to best utilize resources to promote engagement, security and supportive learning environment. Ideally, programs and new technology will overlap to address all three areas to be more effective and cost-efficient.
5 Ways to Aid Student Learning
Efficient operations, simplified communications, accurate data collection and consistently applied discipline policies are essential to developing and maintaining an optimal learning environment. New, integrated information systems can support these elements of a positive school climate.
1. Bolster Autonomy
In most schools, faculty and staff are required to wear identification badges. Nationally, it is the most common security measure. Often, these are laminated photo IDs. Implementing a smart card system, and including students in the system, will streamline operations, provide students with a sense of membership and give them more responsibility and sense of control, conditions necessary to develop a growth mindset.
Smart cards use RFID technology. When a card is tapped or swiped at a card reader, it connects to school databases and the student’s information. With this system, students use their cards to record their attendance, check out library books, and pay for items in the school cafeteria.
2. Monitor Deviation Easier
Nationwide, nearly one-in-six-students missed 15 or more days of school during the 2015-2016 school year. Educators know, and research confirms, that chronic absenteeism puts students at risk of falling behind, becoming disengaged, and dropping out. For most school leaders, reducing absenteeism is a top priority.
An automated attendance system utilizing smart cards puts control of recording attendance in the hands of the students and when combined with an initiative to reduce absences, can help students understand that their presence in class is valued and necessary. With an automated system, data is more accurate and timely than it is with programs that require manual data entry. Report creation is simplified and makes it easy to identify students whose attendance is becoming an issue.
3. Create Smart Behavior Protocols
Manually created and stored behavior records tend to accumulate in file folders and rarely are able to give a complete picture of a student’s behavior issues over their academic careers. School policies are often enforced irregularly as teachers and staff vary in their perceptions of what constitutes a violation severe enough to warrant a write-up or referral. This leaves students with a sense that the system is subjective and unfair. Consequences for behavior, in the student’s mind, are based on a teacher’s whim.
An automated behavior management system allows teachers to quickly enter notes on both good and bad behavior into the student’s record. Interventions and the results of interventions are also recorded. This creates a file that will follow the student across classrooms and through grade levels. With this level of data, behavior patterns may be identified and problems mitigated. Automated referrals mean that students know any disciplinary action is a direct consequence of their behavior, something they can strive to control.
4. Use Automation to Ease Staff Workloads
Technology has come a long way since schools first began using SIS, attendance and grade book software. Disparate legacy programs cannot meet the security and efficiency demands of today’s institutions.
New, integrated systems streamline operations by facilitating internal and external communications, improving security, making data available in real-time to the people that need it and reducing the clerical workload. A special education teacher updating an IEP will have access to the most current behavior reports on the student. A parent may automatically receive a text message when their child has checked-in to school. School principals can access a centralized dashboard and immediately know who is in the building.
5. Ensure a Safe Environment
Automated visitor management and secure door access systems can secure buildings while maintaining a welcoming school environment. Traditional visitor management systems require that vendors, substitutes, parents and others who have business in the school sign in on a paper log sheet.
The weakness of this as a security measure is obvious—there is no way for school personnel to determine if people seeking entrance pose a threat to the school.
An automated system requires visitors to swipe their license at a kiosk to verify their identity. These systems are integrated with SIS data so that individuals involved in custody disputes or orders of protection are flagged. These systems also interact with sex offender registries to block those who legally cannot be around children.
Secure door access systems allow administrators to lock one or all doors in a building with one command. Authorized students and personnel may use their smart cards as keys to access the building, classrooms and other areas of the school. From the Administration Dashboard, the school principal can set permissions for each individual cardholder.
School administrators play a critical part in increasing student achievement by leading climate improvement initiatives. New, integrated SIS programs, behavior modification, data management, communication, and security systems can facilitate students’ sense of security, competence, and connectedness, improving engagement and student learning.
To learn more about replacing outdated school systems with new technology to create an optimal learning environment, feel free to chat with one of our specialists today!