• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 07th April, 2009

Forget about your ABC. It’s all about the Rs

No educationalist born during in last two or three hundred years is likely to be shocked by pronouncements from the US scientific community that a good school is a just society in microcosm or that good teaching does far more than enable children to perform academically.But as New York University psychologist Larry Aber told Society for Research in Child Development conference delegates in Denver on Friday, interest in schools becoming the locus for interventions that address community ills and guide children’s social and emotional development has seldom been greater.“School climate” and “the learning environment” are back on the political agenda and researchers are attempting to unpick their structural characteristics.Hence the focus of Friday’s symposium, which looked at whether changes made to the “feel” of a school can act as a prevention strategy for healthy child development.“Research has shown that school climate is linked to children’s social-emotional and academic outcomes,” Larry Aber said. “A positive classroom climate is linked to greater self-esteem, less acting out and improved academic performance.” The problem was that no-one yet understood quite how.Friday’s morning symposium considered three interventions, all the subject of long-term high-quality experimental evaluations. Aber’s focus was the “4Rs,” a universal intervention that fuses social-emotional learning (respect and resolution) with literacy (reading and ‘riting). The evaluation design is combining analysis on a small cohort of students, from whom high quality (expensive) developmental data are being collected, with administrative data for the whole-school. It is being run over three years among 18 New York City elementary schools. The second year data looked promising, Aber said. There were fewer emotional and behavioral problems among the focus cohort and the attendance and grades of children across the school were improving. Greatest benefit was felt by those most at risk who were getting a higher program “dose”. Children in poverty – those qualifying for free or reduced school lunches – as well as ethnic minority populations showed improvements in their reading and math scores. Celene Domitrovich reported on a program running in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Facing History and Ourselves uses interpretations of defining events, such as the Rwandan genocide or the Holocaust, as the basis of a "character education" program to foster civic responsibility, morality, respect and social-moral competence and to build a school community that reflects similar traits. The evaluation is considering the program’s effect on teachers’ feelings of efficacy and satisfaction as well as students’ problem solving ability, social responsibility, and commitment and attachment to the school. It had detected a significant increase in teachers’ satisfaction, Domitrovich said, although it did not translate into an increased sense of effectiveness. Students showed an increased ability to solve problems and a better appreciation of social justice. But Harrisburg was a relatively poor community with a high proportion of single-parent households and children with special needs. A national randomized controlled trial should shed more light on any more general benefits.The final slot was devoted to Positive Behavior and Interventions Supports , developed at the University of Oregon by George Sugai and Robert Horner. Theirs is a school-wide model for organizational change, designed to improve children’s outcomes by enhancing staff behavior and staff-student relationships. It rewards students when they meet expectations and follow procedures for managing disruptions. Catherine Bradshaw from Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence explained that the model had proved remarkably popular in Maryland – despite a lack of robust evidence as to its effectiveness. Over half the schools in the state had implemented it; schools with high truancy and suspension rates had no option – it was a mandatory response. Preliminary data from her evaluation suggested that schools where levels of “organizational health” were higher at the outset implemented the model more swiftly; less healthy schools took longer to reach model fidelity, but once over that obstacle they tended to show the greatest gains. Disappointingly, the reported gains were largely confined to “outputs” measures such as the number of referrals for disruptive behavior and the number of suspensions. The number of students referred for counseling services was also down. But whether these reductions translated into long-term gains in terms of student opportunity and capacity to learn no one yet knew. Latest data suggested that control and intervention groups in the evaluation showed similar improvements over time in students’ academic performance. All three speakers spoke about difficulties with implementation with fidelity across the evaluation sites and the need to analyze the pathways of effect as the four longitudinal studies matured. For more about “classroom climate” see, for example, the Michigan State University Best Practice Brief archive

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