Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, is heading a research team that will develop a standard model for school climate and safety assessment in Virginia middle and high schools, thanks to a four-year, $500,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant he received through Youth-Nex, U.Va.’s center to promote effective youth development.
“Developing standards is critical,” Cornell said. “Schools need standard measures of school climate and safety so that they can identify areas for improvement and make informed decisions about the most effective practices to maintain a safe and orderly school. Our previous studies demonstrated that a positive school climate was linked to safer schools, as well as higher student achievement.”
The grant is designed to identify the most useful and valid measures and incorporate them into a standard process for school assessment and improvement. The project will build on Cornell’s studies in Virginia and collective research in other states. Project co-investigators include Curry School professor Tim Konold and senior scientist Francis Huang, and Youth-Nex postdoctoral fellow Peter Lovegrove.
In addition, representatives from the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services will support the implementation of the grant.
“Many states already have statewide surveys to assess some aspects of school climate,” Cornell said. “So this is an important step for Virginia schools.”
The new surveys will be incorporated into the Virginia School Safety Audit program, which has largely relied on surveys of school principals since its beginning in 1997.
In 2007, the Virginia High School Safety Study, also conducted by Cornell, demonstrated the value of adding student and teacher surveys to the examination of school safety conditions.
Cornell will begin this latest study by assessing school climate and safety conditions, including the prevalence of bullying, in Virginia’s 327 middle schools next spring and in the state’s 311 high schools the following year.
The assessments will include online surveys of students and teachers to report on key features of school climate, such as perceptions that rules are strictly and fairly enforced and that students feel comfortable seeking help from teachers.
The safety component of the survey will assess how frequently students experience various forms of bullying, as well as other forms of teasing and aggression. Teachers will also be asked how frequently they experience student misbehavior that is disrespectful or threatening.
“This is the first time all Virginia secondary schools will receive a standard report of their school climate and safety conditions,” Cornell said.
Reports will be prepared on an alternating-year basis, with middle schools receiving a report in spring 2013 and 2015, and high schools in spring 2014 and 2016. The reports will permit schools to compare their results to state norms disaggregated by region, size of school and student demographics.
Cornell said the study is also designed to be part of a nationwide effort to reduce discipline problems in schools and boost graduation rates. The National School Discipline Consensus Project is part of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, a national nonprofit organization that aims to improve public safety.
“A critical problem is the widespread use of school suspension as a disciplinary consequence, especially among minority students,” Cornell said. “Many studies have questioned the effectiveness of school suspension, especially when it is an automatic, zero-tolerance policy.”
The Consensus Project is concerned with identifying best practices and establishing national standards for school discipline.
Cornell’s work emphasizes disciplinary structure and support for students. His research has shown that “like good parents, schools should strive for a balance of both firm disciplinary structure and an understanding and supportive approach with students,” he said.