05/25/2016 03:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2016

States' Crucial Choice Under New Federal Education Law: Selecting the Best Survey to Measure and Improve School Quality

By recently replacing the failed No Child Left Behind with Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Congress has created a huge opportunity for States. They can dramatically improve America's low-achieving public schools -- if the States choose wisely. If they don't, millions more disadvantaged children would be unjustifiably and discriminatorily left severely behind for another generation. How States use their new flexibility will determine whether American education succeeds.

For accountability purposes, ESSA now requires every State receiving Title I funds to adopt at least one "indicator" of "school quality" or "student success," in addition to standardized test scores. Whether or not required for accountability, such indicators can provide invaluable information for school improvement.

Regrettably, not all indicators are created equal. Student success indicators, including those listed by ESSA, e.g. "student engagement" or "postsecondary readiness," are too narrowly focused on student outcomes. Measuring student outcomes wouldn't help schools identify why negative outcomes occur, nor critically, how to improve.

Instead, for school improvement, it's essential that indicator(s) measure school quality. But it's insufficient to measure merely one, or more, piecemeal aspects of school quality. Research and experience show that turning around low-achieving schools involves addressing five common elements together: (1) leadership; (2) instruction; (3) curriculum; (4) school climate; and (5) parent/community involvement and support -- and specific practices for each. Thus, for maximum help, indicators must measure key practices under each element.

Because ESSA restricts accountability indicators to those which can disaggregate results for racial/ethnic, economic and other student subgroups, 1111(c)(4)(B), accountability indicators are apparently limited to student surveys, where subgroups are identifiable. However, for school improvement purposes, it's also essential to use teacher/staff surveys, because only staff can assess the vital domains of leadership and teaching.

Yet one climate survey stands out as the most useful for school improvement -- the School Climate Assessment Instrument (SCAI), developed by Professor John Shindler, Alliance for the Study of School Change (ASSC), California State University, Los Angeles. SCAI has helped schools improve in multiple States, including Texas and Michigan.

SCAI is unique among climate indicators in three major respects that make it so useful for school improvement.

  1. Structure: Other climate surveys use the traditional Likert scale framework for answering questions. For example, CSCI essentially asks school personnel to rate on a six-point scale -- from strongly positive to strongly negative -- whether a school provides opportunities for teacher collaboration. By contrast, SCAI uses a unique analytic trait structure. For the same issue, SCAI asks school staff which of three conditions, or one in between, best describes their school: (i) "Faculty members commonly collaborate on matters of teaching;" (ii) "Most faculty members are congenial to one another, and occasionally collaborate;" or (iii) "Typically faculty members view one another competitively." SCAI, by describing a range of concrete conditions involving the same practice, enables more precise rating and greater inter-rater reliability. Moreover, since SCAI structures each item from greatest to least educational effectiveness, once the school knows where it stands on the effectiveness continuum for a particular practice. It also gains invaluable guidance for how to improve that practice.

  • Correlation: School climate as measured by SCAI score has a uniquely high correlation with student achievement: about 0.7. Put differently, SCAI has the highest predictive validity of any climate measure. SCAI identifies a school's real problems, not just symptoms: rectifying problems identified by SCAI improves the school and student learning.
  • Conceptual Framework/Paradigms: SCAI is based on a holistic educational, psychological and organizational-behavior concept of what's required to improve low-achieving schools moving from the least effective condition of staff distrust, domination and punitiveness to the most effective condition of trust, collaboration and supportiveness. SCAI is the sole climate instrument that not only provides schools detailed information on key practices that need to be changed but an overview of the fundamental changes needed and a clear path for achieving them.
  • For these reasons, of all school climate surveys, SCAI would give States, districts, and schools the most informative and actionable data on key practices, as well as an overview on fundamentals to improve low-achieving schools. Each State should select SCAI's student surveys as at least one of its indicators for accountability. Because staff surveys are also essential for school improvement, States should likewise use SCAI's staff surveys for school improvement. Under ESSA, the results of both would be annually reported to the public. 1111(h)(1)(C)(xiv)(2)(C)(iii).

    Now it's up to State/local officials, stakeholders, the media, and all concerned about finally effectively educating our disadvantaged students. Urge the States to adopt SCAI for both accountability and school improvement purposes.