STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

If you want to improve academic achievement, you need happier students

Torrey Wiley / Flickr CC /

Research suggests that among school-related factors,teacher quality is one of the most important determinants of student success. That's why recruiting and retaining good teachers is essential to improving schools. 

But according to a new study published in the Review of Educational Research, school climate is just as important.

So, what isschool climate? Well, it's difficult to provide a concise definition.

It's a term experts use that refers to the quality and character of school life as it relates to physical, social, and academic dimensions. Basically, does a school feel friendly and inviting? Or does it feel unwelcoming and unsafe?

Researchers suggest that when students are happier, they are more successful. According to the National Education Association:

A favorable school climate has been linked with higher student academic motivation and engagement, as well as elevated psychological well-being. Not surprisingly, schools promoting engaging learning environments tend to have fewer student absences and improvements in academic achievement across grade levels.

Positive school climate – often defined as having nurturing educators, parental involvement and safety – also linked to lower dropout rates, fewer student discipline problems, and increased teacher retention.

Negative school climate is linked to lower graduation rates, poor student achievement, and more opportunities for bullying, violence, and suicide.

And while school climate can be complicated to measure, 2016 was the first year schools were urged to measure it, according to NPR:

For the first time ever, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to include non-academic factors — like school climate — into how they gauge school success. Earlier this year, the Department of Education released an online toolbox to help administrators better measure and understand the school climate.

Studies show that childhood emotional health is one of the greatest predictors of life satisfaction in adulthood. That’s why study authors suggest school climate is something educators and communities should prioritize. Vicki Zakrzewski is education director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. She wrote for The Huffington Post:

Emotions play an integral role in education, affecting students’ motivation, attention, social functioning, and ethical decision-making. For example, enjoyment of learning motivates students to put forth greater effort, whereas boredom only decreases effort. Anxiety lessens students’ ability to problem-solve, but hope and pride can increase self-efficacy. Thus, creating safe and caring classrooms and designing engaging lessons, both of which promote positive emotions in students, should be high on a teacher’s agenda.

And although creating a positive school climate is not simple, experts say it's worth it. Joaquin Tamayo is director of strategic initiatives at the U.S. Education Department. He told NPR:

Improving school climate is tough, it's tedious, it's incremental. But when folks can do it right, and when they really put not just their mind but their heart into it, it's just such a beautiful thing.

And the best part?

There's no link between school climate and socioeconomic status, so even low-income kids can have happy schools. Study co-author Ron Avi Astor told NPR:

Obviously you need to have a great math teacher that can teach math, but those social and emotional connections really help in the academic area too. That creates a lot of opportunities for the low-income schools by giving reformers more tools to think about.

You can read the full study in the Review of Educational Researchhere.

Paulette is a blogger for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously interned as a reporter in the Michigan Radio newsroom.