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The Relationship Between School Climate and Academic Success in San Diego: Using Measures of School Climate to Predict Student Outcomes

A San Diego Unified School District/UC San Diego Partnership Project Funded by the Spencer Foundation


Project Overview                                                                                                                                                      

In 2016, the Spencer Foundation awarded the San Diego Education Research Alliance (SanDERA) at UCSD a grant entitled The Relation Between School Climate and Student Outcomes in San Diego: Using Research to Tailor Socioemotional Supports in a Large Urban District. Among other goals, the project aims to use multiple years of survey data from the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS) in San Diego Unified School District to

  • Derive meaningful measures of aspects of school climate
  • Assess patterns of survey responses within and across schools and student groups
  • Produce parent-friendly reports of school climate measures
  • Integrate these measures into our Academic Trajectories data to determine the extent to which school climate measures can help to predict academic outcomes
  • Work with the SDUSD counseling staff to user what we know about a school’s climate to help direct limited resources

The primary data source for the project is the California Healthy Kids Survey, a statewide survey of students administered to all students in SDUSD in grades 7, 9 and 11 in the school years 2010-11, 2012-13 and 2014-15. Data from the core section of the CHKS naturally divide into measures related to school safety, school connectedness, school developmental supports, and measures of drug use and alcohol use.  2014, the Counseling Department of SDUSD invited us to explore these data in an effort to provide a meaningful measure of school culture and climate from the viewpoint of students.


Project Goals

1. Quick Turnaround Research

Assessing the New College Prep Curriculum - The district currently seeks more, and timely, research on the district’s new college preparatory high school graduation requirement.  One goal of our study is to examine whether high school graduation rates are affected by the more rigorous standard, and another is to follow younger cohorts while at the same time asking, for the older cohorts, whether postsecondary enrollment rates in colleges rise as a result of the reform.

Trends and Variation in College Enrollment and Success - We propose to issue a report that depicts overall trends and trends by major student group, and by high school, on college enrollment and college graduation rates.  We know from teacher focus groups that teachers are eager to see these results, and we suspect parents feel the same way.

2. Deepening Our Understanding of Student Attitudes and School Climate

Our recent Academic Trajectories project has shown that behavioral information, such as teachers’ reports on students’ degree of respect for others and ability to hand in work on time, can predict subsequent student performance remarkably well.  This finding has resonated with teachers and principals in focus groups.  Related to student attitudes and behavior, the overall school climate, student supports, and strength of the school community can matter tremendously, as documented by Bryk et al. (2010) and Lee and Smith (1999), among others. 

What can we do to learn more about school culture, and can it explain some of the variations we are finding across schools in the percentage of students who do better or worse than predicted in our on-track models? 

To determine this, we plan to use data from the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS).  This statewide survey of students has been administered in San Diego as a census of all students in grades 7, 9 and 11 in the school years 2010-11, 2012-13 and 2014-15.  The data are at the student level but are anonymous.  Crucially, we do know each student’s school and grade level.  In 2014, the Counseling Department of SDUSD invited us to explore these data, because department administrators believe that they will provide a meaningful measure of school culture and climate, from the viewpoint of students.  The district has not yet found an effective way to share the CHKS results with the public or to validate the usefulness of the data. 

CHKS includes information on use of alcohol, drugs and tobacco, and reports on bullying and violence.  Especially interesting to us is the school climate part of the survey.  For example, students respond to a variety of questions about school connectedness (e.g., “I feel close to people in this school”), school developmental supports (e.g., “At this school, there is a teacher or some other adult who always wants me to do my best”), and community developmental supports (e.g.,  “Outside of my home and school, there is a teacher or some other adult who really cares about me”).

3. Updating Trajectories Work for Smarter Balanced Testing

In focus groups, our Academic Trajectories work has generated intense interest among teachers and principals.  We have used 11 years of student level data to create forecasting models for whether students are on track, almost on track, or off track for a variety of outcomes ranging from grade 5 proficiency in math and English Language Arts, to being on track in grade 9 (in terms of course completion), to graduating on time.

We propose to integrate these measures into our Academic Trajectories data in the following way:  We have derived student probabilities of meeting a variety of academic objectives.  As students proceed from grade to grade, we can compare predictions at time t-k with the actual outcome at time t.  This in turn allows us to identify schools at which students perform better than predicted or worse than predicted.  What accounts for these variations across schools?  We propose to correlate these school variations with measures of school culture and climate from the CHKS data.  We will also perform multivariate analyses that simultaneously account for measures of school culture and climate, teacher qualifications, and the socioeconomic status of the student body.

Our models use, among many other predictors, performance on the California Standards Test (CST).   We intend, during the three-year span of the proposed work, to use student results from the SBAC in spring 2015 through spring 2017, matched to student outcomes such as graduation on time measured in spring 2016 through spring 2018, to develop 1-, 2- and 3-year-ahead forecasting models that use these new tests. This important new work will allow us to continue to provide the district with nuanced predictive models that district staff can use to design academic supports for each student.

4. Enhancing Outreach and Communications Locally and Nationally

We propose to work with the Area Superintendents to find occasions to present our work and request feedback from district schools.  Each Area Superintendent regularly meets with all of the school principals in his or her area.  Our first strategy is developing a series of brief but informative presentations at these meetings, on topics including our Academic Trajectories work, college prep research, and our proposed new work on school climate and postsecondary outcomes.  At each meeting we will provide handouts that give principals accessible summaries of our studies, and will also provide links to the full reports by email.  Importantly, these presentations will be designed to obtain feedback from principals on the policy issues that they believe most urgently require attention.  We expect these conversations to lead to new policy research ideas that will prove useful and important, particularly in the quick turnaround research we have proposed. 

Presentations at Area Superintendents’ meetings will create additional opportunities for us to present, and to obtain feedback, at meetings of individual clusters, which consist of individual high schools and the schools in their feeder patterns. 


Project Leadership

This project is a university-district partnership project that brings together staff from UCSD and SDUSD.  The Principal Investigator (PI) of the project is Julian Betts, Professor, Department of Economics at UCSD. Additional staff include Karen Volz Bachofer (Director, SanDERA), Dina Polichar (Research Data Analyst, SanDERA), and Andrew Zau (Senior Statistician, SanDERA). 


Project Timeline

January 1, 2017 through December 31, 2019


Contact Information

For additional information, please contact Julian Betts, Department of Economics, UC San Diego (