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Wiener: Student belonging is essential to success. Education policies must ensure school is a place where every child belongs

Ross Wiener | December 16, 2019



I started my career as a trial attorney for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, vindicating students’ legal right to belong in school. My experiences taught me a lot about the corrosive effects of students being “othered” based on race, religion, disability status or English proficiency. In the most egregious cases, students were assigned to different campuses or shunted into basements and trailers, clearly signaling through physical separation that they did not belong. Lack of belonging was also conveyed in more subtle ways, through low expectations, punitive discipline and neglect — sowing the seeds of schools’ contributions to gaps that pervasively plague public education.

These experiences seared into me one simple, profound truth: All children deserve a school where they experience belonging. The need for belonging, a feeling of being respected and accepted, is deeply human and one of the most researched and well-documented findings of psychology. Accountability debates tend to center on test scores and graduation rates; schools’ responsibility for student belonging should also be part of the definition of school success.

Several recent publications underscore the importance of valuing students’ sense of belonging in school, including the NewSchools Venture Fund’s second Insight Brief on expanded definitions of student success. Utilizing Transform Ed’s “3M” framework, NewSchools supports district and charter schools in pursuing SEL skills and school-climate attributes that (1) matter to long-term outcomes; (2) are measurable in schools and (3) are malleable, meaning they can be positively influenced through school practice. Surprisingly, for the second year in a row, students’ sense of belonging (as measured by NewSchools’ survey) was not correlated with student test-score gains.

NewSchools is committed to monitoring this lack of correlation closely over the coming years, because other studies have found the opposite — that student reports of belonging correlate with test score gains. For example, an analysis of more than 600,000 student reports from California’s CORE districts reveals that students who experience belonging attend school more frequently, get in less disciplinary trouble and learn more reading and math. Similarly, University of Chicago research documents that student engagement, the gateway to achievement, is determined by four learning mindsets, the first and most foundational of which is: Do I belong here?

Belonging isn’t only valuable because it improves test scores — although there is ample evidence it does — it’s valuable as a primary component of the social contract school represents.

Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute recently argued that the most fundamental goal of public education should be ensuring that students answer “yes” to the question: Are you in? He asserts that reducing school success to test scores has “changed fundamentally a child’s experience of school in ways a lot of Americans just don’t like. And they’re not wrong.” He writes that school is the first and most important civic institution where students either come to feel a bond to community and country, or not; if this sense of belonging, of membership, of an ownership stake in society, is not modeled in school, something vital is lost.

Belonging in school matters in a big way for equity. School is society’s biggest investment in students’ preparing to engage with the broader community and understanding their place in it, and they inevitably pick up on the signals that are sent. According to the Mindset Scholars Network, “when students are uncertain about whether they belong [in school], they are vigilant for cues in the environment that signal whether or not they belong, fit in or are welcome there. They may also be concerned about confirming a negative stereotype about their group. This hypervigilance and extra stress uses up cognitive resources that are essential for learning, diminishing their performance and discouraging them from building valuable relationships.”

Conversely, schools that do focus on building belonging can close gaps between groups: In trying to improve college and career readiness among English learners, Summit Public Schools noticed overall positive survey results from English learners, but lower levels of belonging. Acting on these data, Summit convened a team of teachers to learn from the classrooms where English learners reported the highest levels of belonging, shared these practices across its educator community and improved performance significantly as a result.

As a core commitment to children and families, public education policy should embrace the promise that school is a place where every student belongs. Every student.

Ross Wiener is a vice president and executive director of the Education & Society Program at the Aspen Institute, and previously served as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and as policy director at Education Trust.

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