School Climate & Safety Opinion

How Measuring School Climate Can Improve Your School

By Jonathan Cohen & Terry Pickeral — April 17, 2007 7 min read
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There is a disturbing gap between research findings on school climate and guidelines on school climate policy and practice. This is unfair—even unjust—to students, parents, and educators.

For almost a hundred years, educators have appreciated the importance of school climate. Although researchers and practitioners use somewhat different definitions (referring, for example, to the “tone” or “atmosphere” of the school), virtually all agree that climate refers to the quality and character of school life. Most often, it is measured by polling members of the school community about their perceptions of school life. But school climate is more than individual experience: It is an emergent group phenomenon.

Positive school climate is associated with and/or predictive of academic achievement, effective risk-prevention efforts, and healthy youth development.

When we walk into a group meeting, we often can sense how cohesive and collaborative the group is. This feeling is certainly based on individual actions, but also on something more. When people work together, a group process emerges. Researchers and scholars have described in various ways the dimensions that color and shape this process. But a comprehensive evaluation of school climate includes an assessment of major spheres of school life—safety, relationships, teaching and learning, the environment—as well as larger organizational patterns (fragmented or cohesive or “shared”; healthy or unhealthy; conscious or unrecognized).

It is now apparent that how we feel about being in school and these larger group trends shape learning and student development. This is what an extraordinary and growing body of educational research over the last three decades has shown. Positive school climate is associated with and/or predictive of academic achievement, effective risk-prevention efforts, and healthy youth development.

We can all remember childhood moments when we felt particularly safe (or unsafe) in school, when we experienced a strong connection to a caring adult (or felt frighteningly alone), when we were unusually engaged in learning that had meaning for us (or not). Not only do these kinds of experiences shape learning and development, they also represent our most vivid school memories. Yet they are not measured in K-12 schools today, and hence “do not count.”

Over the past few years, we have worked with school communities that are using assessments to understand their current strengths and needs and to develop school improvement plans that respond to social, civic, emotional, and ethical needs, as well as academic ones. When Lionel Flax, a co-principal at Morris Academy in New York City’s Bronx borough, asked students, parents, and school personnel there to complete a school climate survey, he told them that the findings would be used to help them better understand the school and what it could be. This was a first step in making the concept of “learning communities” come alive. All members of the school community came together to reflect on the dimensions that shape how we feel about being in school. Everyone had an opportunity to learn about what people thought and felt about school life.

When we use evaluation of school climate as a springboard for school improvement, we are doing much more than promoting academic achievement.

One of the important findings to emerge from this survey was that bullying was a much bigger problem for students than the adults realized. Addressing this problem created a platform for educators to promote student engagement: They allowed the students to be their teachers. What did they know that the adults did not? Why was it acceptable for students and adults alike to be passive bystanders to bullying, and thus collude in its perpetration? This kind of discussion was an opportunity for students to become action researchers, to talk with each other about why there was so much bullying. The experience made them feel “heard” in new ways, and they were also addressing an important (and epidemic) national problem that clearly undermines learning and healthy development.

Too often, assessments—whether a student’s psychoeducational evaluation or a school’s climate assessment—are neither understood fully nor used collaboratively to create specific improvement plans. But comprehensive school climate assessment can be a springboard for the community to reflect on what schools should be. Documenting this kind of assessment, moreover, can advance a data-driven improvement process that recognizes the social, emotional, and ethical aspects of school life, as well as the academic.

In our work, we have talked with parents and educators across America about what they want their sons and daughters to know and to be when they graduate from high school. Repeatedly, we have discovered that, as important as linguistic literacy and mathematical literacy are to parents and educators, they want first for schools to be places where young people can discover how to be lifelong learners, true friends, people with “healthy passions,” and contributing members of society. These are social, emotional, and ethical, as well as cognitive, capacities. In fact, we are always social, emotional, and ethical teachers when we interact with our children and students. The only question involves what lessons we are teaching and modeling in these areas.

A core constellation of social and emotional competencies and ethical dispositions forms the foundation for success in school and in life. Research from a number of historically disparate but overlapping fields—character education, social-emotional learning, risk prevention, and health- and mental-health-promotion studies—has revealed that academic achievement significantly increases when schools coordinate the following two critical processes over a three- to five-year period: (1) purposefully promoting students’ (and adults’) social, emotional, and cognitive competencies and ethical dispositions; and (2) creating a safe, caring, participatory, and responsive school.

When we use evaluation of school climate as a springboard for school improvement, we are doing much more than promoting academic achievement. We are supporting the participation of students and adults alike in a democratic process. Doing this kind of comprehensive school climate work uses the same sets of skills and dispositions that undergird effective citizenship.

What are these skills and dispositions? The list of skills might include the following: listening to ourselves and others; thinking critically and reflectively; having flexible problem-solving and decisionmaking abilities, including the ability to resolve conflicts in creative and nonviolent ways; communicating in ways that allow us to participate in discussion; and being collaborative. An overlapping set of essential dispositions might include these: being responsible; appreciating that we are social creatures and need others to survive and thrive; appreciating the importance of social justice; and appreciating that it is an honor and a pleasure to serve and help others. Not surprisingly, these are also the skills and dispositions that promote caring, responsible learning communities.

School climate has been gaining the attention of more and more district and state leaders in recent years. But so far action has not matched interest. Although, in theory, research shapes policy, which in turn shapes practice, life is rarely so logical. School climate is an important—and troubling—example of this. When our two centers recently engaged in a review of school climate policy across all 50 state departments of education, we discovered a glaring gap between school climate research, on the one hand, and departmental policy, school-improvement-practice guidelines, and teacher education requirements, on the other. As we review state and district mission statements, we find a common set of expectations for student learning and development. Virtually all suggest that education needs to support students’ ability to think creatively and critically, communicate clearly and directly, write and be able to develop projects at a high level, be effective and ethical users of technology, and be responsible and engaged members of their communities. Policymakers and education leaders need to encourage and support school climates that research indicates are best at providing the opportunities for students to achieve these competencies.

An essential first step would be to measure school climate in scientifically sound and comprehensive ways. When we adequately take stock of school climate, we are not only bringing together the school community in a way that will help it become a learning community, but we also are explicitly recognizing the social, emotional, civic, and ethical dimensions of school life, along with the cognitive. School climate assessment can give us an understanding of our schools’ strengths and challenges while we are giving our students a voice, fostering the building of a real community, and, in the process, promoting the skills and dispositions that lead to success in school and in life.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as How Measuring School Climate Can Improve Your School

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