Researchers say positive school climate plays key factor in reducing disparities in pre-k quality

Teachers sits at a table making a clapping motion with diverse preschool class
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A positive school climate—characterized by effective leadership, strong family ties, and trust—can mitigate disparities in levels of emotional support and classroom organization for Black and Latine preschoolers, finds a new study by New York University psychology researchers.

Their findings are published in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

“This study strengthens our knowledge of school climate as a possible lever to offset barriers associated with systemic racism in our education system and create the equitable pre-k environments Black and Latine students deserve,” says lead author, Jessica Siegel, a doctoral student at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Siegel and her colleagues used data from 615 schools serving four-year-old children from 2016-2019 in one urban school district offering universal pre-K. Their study sought to explore the relationship between the percentage of Black and Latine (alternative term for “Latinx”) preschoolers and school quality and determine whether school climate could moderate quality disparities in preschools.

The authors measured pre-K classroom quality using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, which assigns scores for student-teacher interactions in terms of emotional support (ES), sensitive and responsive teaching; classroom organization (CO), teachers’ management of children’s behavior; and instructional support (IS), how teachers promote cognitive and language development.

They measured school climate using scores from the district’s school quality assessment that combines parent and teacher surveys with a standardized quality review.

They found that schools with the highest proportion of Black and Latine students had lower pre-K quality. However, for schools in the highest quartile of school climate, ES and CO were nearly identical between schools serving the highest and lowest proportions of Black and Latine students. No mitigating relationship was found between school climate and IS scores, indicating that regardless of climate, “Black and Latine students are less likely to experience high quality instructional support.”

“With so much investment in scaling public pre-K programs nationwide, it is essential that we provide policymakers and practitioners with ways to reduce racial inequities in the quality of education offered to our youngest learners,” says Siegel. “Supporting school leaders, teachers, families, and staff in fostering positive school climates is a promising direction to create more equitable pre-K environments.”

This study was co-authored by NYU Steinhardt’s Alejandro J Ganimian, assistant professor of applied psychology and economics, and Elise Cappella, vice dean for research and professor of applied psychology.

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