School culture and school climate, while not synonymous, are inextricably intertwined with one another and with the ability of a school or district to transform itself into an entity that:

  • is responsive to the needs of all students;
  • creates an environment of shared values and high academic and behavioral expecations for students and staff; and
  • fosters excellence in its students, teachers, parents, and administrators.

The twin pillars of climate and culture are what create a sense of community among all individuals, a community built around the values of respect, creativity, caring, rigor and the shared expectations that all students can and will succeed.

The articles and videos in this category will explore topics around school culture and climate.

The Office of K-12 Outreach of Michigan State University’s College of Education is enjoying the seventh year of the successful Fellowship of Instructional Leaders program. The Fellowship provides educators tools they need to foster systemic improvement in their schools. Through the Fellowship, instructional leaders build their capacity to develop and focus substantive initiatives that improve student achievement.

Educators are exposed to a wide range of rich data and need to be able to discern their usefulness. When you think about data, what usually comes to mind are numbers, graphs, percentages, etc., presented with little context, and at times, with even less clarity. Some of the data may appear to be irrelevant or redundant to teachers or administrators; this can make it difficult for them to make meaning of the data and use it to inform their teaching or administrative practices.

2014 is quickly approaching and so is the implementation of the Common Core. Educators have seen standards and benchmarks come and go over the past two decades; however, the Common Core and the two assessment consortiums—The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balance Assessments (SBCA)—signify a shift towards universality in both curriculum and assessments. With these universal initiatives, new assessments will be tightly aligned to content expectations, but basic skills will remain a decisive element of student performance. As we prepare for these new challenges, educators must tool their students with strong foundational skills that can be developed through multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) such as Response to Intervention (RtI).

Although RtI comes from the special education field, schools across the nation are implementing RtI programming at a rapid pace to improve basic skills for all students. In 2011, a national survey conducted by Spectrum K12 School Solutions of 1,306 district administrators found that 94% had implemented some level of RtI programming. By focusing instruction on basic skills such as reading fluency and comprehension, RtI can provide meaningful remedial experiences to all students. By providing support at three tiered levels, students who are behind grade level can be targeted for specific interventions, while students who are near or at grade level participate in lessons and activities that help improve skills up to and beyond grade level. Because RtI focuses on skills for all students, it is one of the best program examples of differentiated instruction today.

When considering the Common Core, a great impediment to learning content is the lack of basic skills needed to access the content, decipher the text, or comprehend the meaning. Improved basic skills such as reading is proven to promote higher levels of student achievement. By aligning Common Core instruction with RtI programming, students are more likely to receive instructional content that is aligned with their current skill levels. Figure 1 offers an example.

Let’s look at the eighth-grade literacy standard (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.10):

“By the end of the year, read and comprehend literary nonfiction at the high end of the grades 6–8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.”

The key skills in this standard are reading and comprehension, which roughly translate to “reading fluency and comprehension” in RtI terms. To satisfy this standard, students will need the vocabulary and the skill to break down and interoperate text. By utilizing an RtI framework to tackle these issues, a classroom teacher can set up frequent lessons and activities to promote these skills as a part of daily instruction. This would be done as a Tier-1 intervention that all students in the classroom receive. However, using progress-monitoring tools, the teacher can both identify struggling students and prescribe additional interventions for these students, which in RtI framework are Tier-2 interventions. Finally, students who need even more intervention may need to be recommended for very intensive Tier-3 interventions.

Detractors of RtI say that using the framework requires more work on the part of teachers, while others say the operations just described are simply examples of good teaching. Increased academic standards can make teachers feel pressured to cover content both broadly and quickly, but the intent of having standards is to ensure that students receive the instruction they need to both understand and apply the key skills and concepts behind the standards.  

Both the PARCC and the SBCA are working to create assessments that are as tightly aligned to the standards as possible. While this is a vital component of measuring curricular standards, basic skills will still play a significant role in how students perform on these tests. For example, when we just consider reading, a University of Michigan study by Sandra Hofferth found that every hour of weekly reading translated to half-point improvement on test scores. Recognizing that there are reading/testing connections, purposeful RtI programs can provide the support students need to improve their reading comprehension.

While I have focused on reading as a vital skill for addressing the Common Core, incorporating other skills such as math computation into an RtI framework will also help inform and facilitate more productive and impactful instruction for all students. Schools who embrace RtI programing will not only support students in meeting the Common Core Standards, but they also improve their student’s overall academic potential.


sparty-02 For nearly twenty years, I have been engaged in addressing the achievement gap – as a teacher and teacher educator. My time spent in schools has led me to better understand the importance of integrating students’ voices into our discourse, and strategizing solutions for addressing these gaps. Too often we talk about what needs to occur for students to increase their academic outcomes without actually taking the time to ask students themselves. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, our schools are increasingly re-segregated in many areas and simultaneously more ethnically diverse in others. Yet many of the same factors that have contributed to student achievement gaps historically persist today: inequities in teacher quality, school funding, unhealthy teacher-student relationships, and culturally irrelevant curriculum. As we consider how best to address academic gaps, particularly between Black and Latino students and their White and some Asian-descent counterparts, we must first reframe our discourse in a way that is responsive to the voices of those students at the bottom of these stated gaps—students of color and low-income students.

Franklin CampbellJones“MI Excel school improvement facilitators have to see themselves as an asset to schools, and the schools have to see them as an asset to them, not an impediment. And then the facilitators look at what the school team members need to do to for them to become facilitators themselves.”

These words were spoken by Franklin CampbellJones, Ed.D., a distinguished international school consultant who visited Michigan State University last month to speak with MI Excel’s staff members, school improvement facilitators, and field specialists about cultural proficiency. Building upon his broad experience as a teacher, administrator, and college professor, CampbellJones assists school districts throughout the country in applying the tenets of cultural proficiency to their policies and practices.

Cultural proficiency refers to the framework for school improvement, and requires school system members to critically reflect on the moral underpinnings of the school, and address and believe in educating each student instead of some students. The four tools—barriers, guiding principles, continuum, and essential elements—further assist district leaders and school principals in expanding their horizons beyond their own race, class, and gender, and better understand the perspective of others.

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