The School Environment Project: Measuring Key Elements of School Climate and Culture in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Previous research has investigated the school context using conceptualizations of two constructs, school culture and school climate, that appear to overlap and contain measurement flaws, limiting their utility in applied research settings. To improve learning conditions and promote more equitable academic opportunities and outcomes for students in grades 3-8, the Charlotte, NC, community would benefit from a standard system of measurement that captures the essential elements of school climate and culture that local stakeholders believe matter most for all students to succeed in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS). CMS does not currently administer a comprehensive school culture or climate survey. The present study aimed to address that need. Through a multiphase, participatory community research project, a coherent, parsimonious, and clear conceptualization of school environment emerged, setting the stage for the development and initial validation of the School Environment Survey. This study and the subsequent use of the measure would yield data that could guide the exploration of how to modify school environments to promote equitable outcomes for students while also improving student achievement overall. This collaborative effort involved the exchange of knowledge, expertise, and resources via a partnership involving the Community Psychology Research Lab at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and two community partners: CMS and a nonprofit organization, Communities In Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. During the first phase of this project, essential elements of school climate and culture were reviewed, analyzed, and discussed during interviews and focus groups with 126 local stakeholders until the broader construct of school environment had been defined as a category of concepts that reflect the surroundings or conditions in which people operate in school. With this broad definition of school environment as the underlying, multidimensional construct, five applicable concepts (i.e., domains; see Kohl et al., 2013; Wang & Degol, 2016) were hypothesized to make up school environment: academics, safety, shared vision, community, and physical environment. Multiple participatory steps led to the development of 131 items hypothesized and designed to reflect 16 identified dimensions of school environment, organized into these five domains. The resulting measure was piloted online with 186 teacher participants during the 2020-2021 school year. Exploratory factor analysis results suggest that within the boundary conditions of this effort (i.e., a focus on two CMS learning communities, the inclusion of teachers from grades 3-8, data collected during school year 2020-2021), a 25-item School Environment Survey that captures three domains (academics, safety, and shared vision) may be a useful indicator of teachers’ perceptions of school environment. That model explained 55% of the total variance and, notably, items that performed well on the resulting version of the measure cover nearly the entire hypothesized breadth of the concept as it was defined and operationalized by stakeholders; reliability estimates met or exceeded acceptable thresholds; and school environment results were found to positively relate to student learning outcomes (specifically, standardized tests in reading and math for students in grades 3-8). However, this study had a relatively small sample size that prevented researchers from conducting a confirmatory factor analysis, and COVID-19 presented additional challenges and limitations. Therefore, in addition to an overview of specific advantages and the empirical and theoretical support for the current version of the School Environment Survey, recommendations for ongoing validation are provided as well as considerations of the implications for local practice.