American school districts are dissatisfied with test scores as a measure of success. So they are trying new ways to show progress, such as asking employees if morale is good.

Districts in 10 states collect what is known as school climate data, but it turns out that data may be skewed by race and ethnicity.

In the Montgomery County, Md., school system, low staff morale shown in surveys has been an issue. According to Schools Superintendent Jack Smith, the problem may be unconscious ethnic bias among his employees. His reaction is important because Montgomery, with 162,680 students, is among the nation’s 20 largest districts — and one of the most diverse. The student body is 32 percent Hispanic/Latino, 28 percent white, 21 percent African American and 14 percent Asian.

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But among its staff, there isn’t quite as much diversity. The majority of the school system’s teaching staff is white, 72.9 percent. Black teachers account for 12.2 percent of the staff, while Hispanic and Asian teachers make up 7.1 percent and 6 percent of the staff, respectively.

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Among principals, 58.9 percent are white, 33.5 percent are black, 4.8 percent are Hispanic and 2.4 percent are Asian.

In a Dec. 28 memo to the county school board, Smith said he looked at an elementary school climate survey showing the percentage of employees who said “staff morale is positive in this school.” This was after the Montgomery County Education Association teachers union told him the district should do more about schools with low morale.

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“I became concerned because of the racial makeup of the principals of both lists,” Smith said. “I determined that 15 of the 18 principals with the most positive ratings were White/Caucasian and 11 of the 15 principals with the lowest rating were Black/African American or Hispanic.”

He told the board that “cultural proficiency and implicit bias” should be considered in creating future surveys. “To use an instrument that results in the over-identification of any race, gender, age or culture is unacceptable,” he said.

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This surprised me. When I wrote two previous columns about low morale ratings in Montgomery County, no school officials, teachers or parents told me the survey results might be distorted by staff bias. Smith’s memo, which I encountered recently, was the first I heard of this.

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Brian Donlon, the teachers union official who had reported to Smith about low ratings, told me he thought the superintendent’s suggestion of bias was wrong. Donlon, who is white, has been a social studies teacher for 26 years and has two children in the school system. He said he is not speaking for the union and is no longer on its board but thinks Smith’s premise “is meant to distract from a lack of attention to schools with serious climate issues.” He said in an email that “school climate for educators revolves around a collaborative atmosphere, support in upholding academic/behavioral standards with students and parents, and being sure that planning time is not being infringed upon with pointless meetings.”

I asked the district’s spokesman, Derek Turner, if Smith thought staffer bias affected the 2018 climate survey results. “Dr. Smith is always mindful of disproportionalities in data, whether it be in student data or in reported survey data,” Turner said in an email. But “he’s not prepared to draw a connection/causation to racial/ethnic bias. . . . Research shows that perceptions of race and ethnicity can impact human interactions.”

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Turner told me the district, with the teachers union and other association partners, would review the soon-to-be-released 2019 survey and “make any necessary adjustments to ensure it accurately captures the climate of a school.”

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“The Montgomery County Alliance of Black School Educators feels that a reconsideration of the climate survey is a must,” said Shawaan T. Robinson, the group’s president. “The questions on safety and staff morale can lead to distorted perceptions and results.”

A study of California schools between 2007 and 2012 by the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization WestEd found school climate results differed depending on the ethnicity of the students. “Teachers and other staff in predominantly White and Asian schools reported more positive school climates than their counterparts in predominantly African American and Hispanic schools,” the report said. It did not make comparisons based on the ethnicity of the principals.

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School climate data may also be skewed by low response rates. The average response rate in Montgomery County is 57.2 percent.

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Veteran education researcher Joseph Hawkins, who has studied the school system, said he thought more could be done to involve non-respondents, what he called “the key to healthy, high response rates.”

Schools nationwide are being encouraged to seek better means of assessing their work. States that try climate surveys also ought to research the effects of ethnic bias. I know some terrific black and Hispanic principals who don’t deserve being tainted by flawed data.

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