Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

Want to improve grades? Ask students how they feel in class.

Some professionals are touting surveys of students as a way to improve academic outcomes. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
High school students at Dearborn Stem Academy, a Boston public school, take an intro to programming computer science class, on Oct. 28, 2015 in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston.

Glorya Wornum knows how different a classroom feels when a teacher listens.

In her sophomore year, students in her Boston charter school took a survey that included questions about what they “went through in class.” And her history teacher listened. 

“My teacher was like, ‘I’ve read the survey and just want to let you guys know I’m going to change things up,’ ” recalls Ms. Wornum, who had been frequently kicked her out of class at her previous high school for speaking out of turn or not paying attention.

And she did. Her students of color spent the next week teaching classes on their own ethnic backgrounds, and the teacher changed her teaching methods to accommodate their visual learning style.

“I’ll always remember my history class, because that’s where I felt my most comfortable culturally,” says Wornum, who is now project coordinator of the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC), the group which came up with the survey.

Experiences like Wornum’s are still a rarity in American classrooms, educators and researchers say. But when schools do make changes based on feedback from students and parents, it can help dissolve negative cultures some say contribute to the chronic academic underachievement among low-income and minority students.

“Every school, every school district, and every state should be very serious about routinely and systematically assessing school climate, because it really is one of many key determinants of student performance and success,” says Shaun Harper, executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. “If we do not pay attention to school climate, I would argue that we will continue to be unsuccessful in moving the student achievement needle.”

For around three decades, education researchers have recognized the need for a data-driven strategy to strengthen relationships, school connectedness, and prevent dropouts. However, efforts on this front bump up against an educational paradigm that focuses on standardized testing and graduation rates as the benchmarks for measuring schools.

This might change as President Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act – the replacement of No Child Left Behind – kicks in over the next few years. States are being asked to adopt at least one additional indicator for the way they measure school success. This could be a boon for youth voice advocates who would like to see measures like “school climate” included in school accountability systems.

It's a key deficit in many US schools. Only one in three 6th- to 12th-graders feel their school has a “positive culture,” according to a recent survey of 80,000 students across 24 states. Discipline and respect in student-to-adult relationships were the standout issues.

“The first step is in embracing the hard truths of these findings,” says Sonya Heisters, director of partnerships for YouthTruth, which conducted the three-year survey. “Instead of waiting till those students are already dropping out and skipping school,” school districts should really see that [data] as a leading indicator to intervene with these students who are struggling, and work with them and partner with them and their families early on.”

“It’s … a huge opportunity to bring our parents and kids on board to raise their voice about what they need and want,” says John Boyd, superintendent of the sprawling Quincy School District in Washington state. “I think it’s essential, and if we can do it well, I think it’s going to get us a little bit closer to the promised land of getting them to succeed.” 

Many of his students' parents are agricultural workers who don't speak a lot of English, so Mr. Boyd recently sat down with their field supervisors, to learn about the “barriers and frustrations” they struggle with. (The district serves an 85 percent Latino population, and roughly 87 percent live below the poverty line.) He recalls hearing things like, “We’re called when our kid is bad, but not when they do something good” and “When we give feedback, teachers get defensive.”

When it comes to school discipline, black students feel the greatest sense of injustice among their peers, according to the YouthTruth survey. But students also acknowledge their role in an often mutually inharmonious school atmosphere, with 57 percent of students saying that adults in schools treat students with respect, while 34 percent thought students treated adults with respect.

Improving the school climate requires special teaching skills.

“If a student is late to my class [and] she’s coming from a low-income background, I can’t berate her the second she comes in the room," says Kevin Cournoyer, a Baltimore public school teacher. "I need to first pull her aside and ask her: ‘Did you make the bus? Was the bus late? Is everything cool at home?’ "

"And after that it’s, ‘OK, let’s talk about why you were late and how that affects your academics,’ ” he adds. “Attending a school with a positive culture is just vital for reversing the cycle of poverty.”

Wornum, the 2015 high school graduate of Boston's Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, remembers how the survey she took in her favorite history class also asked demanding questions of the students about their role in upholding a strong school culture, instead of just blaming the teacher.

“There are just so many walls built up in our school system that we need to work on tearing down, and that really just goes straight back to that school climate," she says. "It's so hard to achieve and get anything done ... if you can't even sit in the classroom with one another and teach effectively and learn effectively.”

[Editor's note: This version was updated to correct one data point on school discipline.]

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