Published Online: April 4, 2006
Published in Print: April 5, 2006, as Reactions to School Climate Vary by Students’ Races

Reactions to School Climate Vary by Students’ Races

A survey designed to gauge school climate has found that older students and those from some minority groups are more likely than their younger, white counterparts to have negative experiences in school.

“Where We Learn,” released last week by the Council of Urban Boards of Education, part of the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, shows that feelings about school overall are positive. More than two-thirds of the 32,000 students surveyed said they enjoy learning at their schools, and eight in 10 said they plan to continue their education after high school.

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How the students, who were in grades 4-12, answered questions in all five areas of inquiry—trust, respect, and caring at school; bullying; school safety; racial self-concept; and general school climate—correlated with age, and even more strongly with race.

African-American students were more likely than pupils in other racial groups to say that teachers don’t respect students, and that students don’t trust teachers at their schools. They also were less likely to say that teachers treat students fairly.

Those of Asian heritage reported the least certainty that teachers care about their success, and were least likely to say their parents are proud of them.

Michelle M. Fine, who has studied school climate as a professor of social psychology and urban education at the City University of New York, said she sees the report as a barometer of the “institutional conditions” in which far too many students—especially urban children from racial- and ethnic-minority groups—must attend school.

If the data could be reanalyzed, she said in an e-mail, she would expect to see strong links between poor school climate and factors such as large school size, shortages of certified teachers, and high dropout rates.

Environment Matters

Brian K. Perkins, the report’s principal investigator and the chairman of the Council of Urban Boards of Education, known as CUBE, said he hopes the survey helps persuade district leaders to monitor school climate and ensure it is positive. The relationships and psychological atmosphere inside schools can provide—or undercut—the conditions necessary for achievement, he said.

“Some people think this is touchy-feely stuff. They say, ‘Oh, it’s the test scores that matter,’ ” said Mr. Perkins, who chairs the New Haven, Conn., school board and the department of educational leadership and policy studies at Southern Connecticut State University there. “But optimal test scores, optimal academic performance, come along with optimal school environments.”

The students, who filled out written surveys, were in 108 schools in 15 school districts of varying size, but averaging about 69,000 students. Each category of questioning yielded generally positive results: Most students feel safe at school, do not experience bullying, feel that teachers respect students, and are optimistic about the future of the nation.

But within those results are more varied experiences. While 51 percent of the students overall said there is a lot of fighting at their schools, 60 percent of middle school students said that was so, compared with 48 percent of older and of younger students.

Feeling Safe

Almost one-quarter of the students surveyed reported feeling uncertain of their safety. Boys felt slightly less safe than girls.

*Click image to see the full chart.

When analyzed by race and ethnicity, nearly 60 percent of black and Native American students reported a lot of fighting at their schools, compared with 51 percent of Hispanic students, 49 percent of non-Hispanic white students, and 26 percent of Asian students.

Three-quarters of the respondents said they were not bullied, but half said they saw someone bullied at their schools at least once a month. More middle schoolers reported witnessing bullying than did older and younger students. Twenty percent of elementary school pupils said they are bullied at least once a month, a larger portion than of middle or high schoolers.

Mr. Perkins found the results on trust and respect the most disturbing in the study. While nearly 62 percent of the students said that teachers respected students, high school students were twice as likely as those in elementary school to disagree with that statement. Black students were far more likely than Hispanic, white, or Asian youths to say that teachers don’t respect students.

On a related question, only about one-third of all students surveyed said that students trusted their teachers. Of those who said students didn’t trust teachers, the largest portion were African-American, followed by Native American students.

Two-thirds of all the students said they believe teachers care about their success. Of those who were uncertain about that, Asian students were the largest group (30 percent). White and Hispanic students were the most likely groups to agree that teachers care about their success.

Students’ vision of the future varied by race and ethnicity. Three-quarters of respondents overall said they believed they would live past age 25. White students (83 percent) were most likely to express that confidence, and Hispanic students (69 percent) were least likely to do so.

African-American students were the mostly likely, at 92 percent, to believe that hard work in school will pay off with success. Asian and Native American students were the least likely to believe that, though large proportions—80 percent of each—still expressed that conviction.

Vol. 25, Issue 30, Pages 5,16

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