Abstract: School Matters: The Contribution of Positive School Climate to Equality in Educational Opportunities Among Ethnocultural Minority Students (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

520P School Matters: The Contribution of Positive School Climate to Equality in Educational Opportunities Among Ethnocultural Minority Students

Saturday, January 18, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Ruth Berkowitz, PhD, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Welfare and Health Sciences, Israel
Lower academic achievement among vulnerable ethnic groups and students from disadvantaged backgrounds is of great concern to social-work professionals and the public. Positive school-climate contributes to greater academic success, yet whether this contribution is predominantly influential in schools catering to disadvantaged populations remains unclear. Further, equivocal descriptions of the mechanisms by which positive climate promotes academic achievement have been suggested. To address these gaps, this study examined three alternative models of the impact of school-climate on academic achievement: compensating, moderating, and mediating the relationships between student socioeconomic status (SES) background and test-scores in Arabic-language schools in Israel.

This study used Israel’s unique national education monitoring system database, which contains information on both student- and school-level SES, 37 items measuring students’ perceptions of school climate, and mathematics test scores (N students = 21,873; N schools = 280). Hierarchical linear models were used to examine mixed-level models and linear regressions to examine school-level-only models. Data were aggregated by school and analyzed separately for fifth- and eighth-graders (elementary and junior-high schools, respectively).

Factor analysis yielded three school-climate factors: positive student–teacher relationship (α = .875), risky peer behavior (α = .507), and school violence (α = .627). The between-school variance in student scores was significant to warrant hierarchical analyses for fifth- (19.24%) and eighth-grade students (27.71%). Student and school SES significantly contributed to fifth- (6.90%) and eighth-grade students’ test scores (7.10%).

The findings confirm the school-climate compensation hypothesis: At the student level, school-climate factors added 4.31% for fifth graders and 3.95% for eighth graders in explained variance in test-scores. In elementary schools, riskier peer behavior (β = -.19, t[183] = -2.07) and school violence (β = -.39, t[183] = -3.92), and in junior-high schools, riskier peer behavior (β = -.27, t[97] = -2.12) were significantly associated with lower test-scores by school, beyond the contribution of SES. These reports contributed an additional 16.9% and 8.0% of explained variance in elementary and junior-high schools, respectively. 

School climate moderated the relationship between SES and test scores at the school level at both grade levels. Almost all interactions between schools’ SES and school climate were significant. Cross-level interactions confirmed smaller achievement gaps among students in junior-high schools with less risky peer behaviors. Finally, the school climate mediation hypothesis was not supported by the data.

Despite the many socioeconomic obstacles ethnocultural minority students face, schools prioritizing positive climate can enhance students’ test-scores. School social-workers are encouraged to invest resources to improve school-climate to support underprivileged students’ prosperity, especially in elementary schools, where a more significant contribution emerged. Positive school-climate is also an effective tool for narrowing achievement gaps between schools and students of different SES backgrounds. The findings suggest that positive climate is not competing but rather integrated with the academic mission of schools and overall improvement efforts. Educational policy should prioritize both aspects. This paper proposes practice measures to improve school-climate, especially in schools catering to deprived populations, to help increase academic opportunities and level the playing field to the advantage of students from vulnerable cultures and backgrounds.