School Climate & Safety Commentary

Psychological Bars To School Improvement

By Douglas H. Heath — March 15, 2000 7 min read
"A clear understanding of a problem prefigures its lines of solution." —Margaret Mead

Ironically, almost two decades after the publication of A Nation at Risk and in spite of the “solutions” proposed since, schools today are more—not less—the focus of national concern. The solutions have not produced the improvement expected.

If a solution does not work, might not our understanding of the problem be flawed? Are higher salaries, computers in every classroom, national standards, better technically trained teachers with higher SAT scores, curricular modernization, even smaller classes the solutions for 21st-century schools? Possibly, but probably not.

Why? Because at their core, schools are social systems. Creating effective social systems means changing their members’ personalities: their minds, interpersonal relationships, values, and self-attitudes. To change the personalities of those who control schools—aging teachers, administrators, school board members, and legislators—is the problem. Research demonstrating the extraordinary continuity in basic personality after adolescence tells us why improving schools has proved to be so slow.

Solutions must be found to overcome four principal psychological barriers to school improvement if more promising solutions, such as smaller classrooms, are to become real solutions. And not just for the “at risk” in poor, urban, minority schools and isolated rural schools, but also for the supposedly “not at risk” in affluent suburban public high schools. I will focus only on the latter, for which I have reliable evidence to show that they, too, are in trouble:

  • Not Listening to and Respecting Students. The first psychological bar is that aging adults are at risk of losing touch with the changing inner worlds of their students. Today’s students’ minds are more vulnerable to distraction and, so, to boredom, relationships more hurtful, values more uncertain, and self-confidence and self-command more fragile. Teachers often are not aware of these vulnerabilities.

    For example, only 11 percent of suburban schools’ faculty members, but 57 percent of their students, believe their schools are boring. Thirty percent more students than teachers believe their peers are sarcastic. Boys consistently lag behind girls in their ethical behavior and self-concepts. Less than a majority of students describe themselves as self-confident.

    Teachers who do not listen respectfully to students risk closing them downand blunting their own desire to reach the students more effectively.

  • Trivializing the Value of Education. The second psychological bar to improving schools is, paradoxically, defining the “success” of schools and teachers primarily by increased achievement-test scores. These can be useful; however, overvaluing objective and precise test scores has four potentially devastating trivializing consequences.

    First, relying primarily on one type of index of a person’s rich and varied potentials eclipses liberal educators’ historic vision of human excellence, especially its character attributes. Only a bare majority of teachers are emotionally committed to the ideal that schools should nurture students’ virtue; less than a majority of boys think of themselves as ethical; only about 20 percent believe their peers act ethically. Less than a majority of teachers and students believe their schools have a noticeable moral climate.

    The second potential effect? Teaching—one of the noblest of professions—loses its soul, becomes just a job, no longer a calling. Why do young people choose teaching? For its high salaries? Status? To increase America’s international ranking on math achievement tests? Scarcely. They enter and remain in the profession because they care about kids; they are called to help them grow into their full potential—not, as one teacher told me, to become only technicians prostituting their hopes to increase students’ test scores.

    The third potentially devastating effect is related: Confining human potential to only easily measurable outcomes obscures the empowering effects that education could have.

    What would perceptive 9th through 12th graders spontaneously write about how they had changed since entering high school? Out of several hundred students asked to do so, not one cited changes measured by existing achievement tests: A 9th grade girl wrote, “Learned how to do better and accept myself; learned how to work and keep up without someone always telling me what to do.” An 11th grade girl wrote, “Am an individual and my feelings and actions are mine; know I am special"; and a 12th grade boy wrote, “Came to an understanding of how different people come to be, and therefore gained a greater compassion for all people.”

    These students know that what they are tested on does not contribute much to the strengths their future roles require. Parents know this also. When asked about the attributes of the person they know who best succeeds as a spouse, parent, citizen, and worker, most identify caring, responsibility, enthusiasm, honesty and integrity, hard work, and yes, a few speak of attributes of intelligence, like good judgment—again, not measured by tests.

    And the last potential consequence of trivializing education’s value is this: Societal overvaluation of grades and test scores can erode curiosity and dilute intrinsic motivation to enjoy learning for its own sake. Only 23 percent of suburban teachers believe their students are curious; only 9 percent believe they have deep interests. Only 5 percent to 10 percent of these teachers believe their students are self-educating and self-motivating.

    Just as dismally, only about a quarter of the students believe their teachers have the attributes of a lifelong learner.

  • Creating Schools That Are Unhealthy Social Systems. We create and organize schools in ways that destroy their effectiveness as self-renewing social systems. Large schools breed anonymity and impersonality, reduce opportunities for student leadership and responsible involvement, distance faculty and students from one another, dilute shared communal values, and alienate the marginal student, among other destructive effects. No research persuasively demonstrates that high schools larger than 400 to 500 students have any singular positive effects on students.

    Although they come from the same affluent student population, 15 percent to 25 percent more of the students in larger suburban public schools believe their teachers are dictatorial, emotionally cold, impatient, impersonal, and inflexible than do the students in smaller private schools. Only 40 percent believe that their teachers are caring.

    How could such results be otherwise in schools of from 800 to 2,000 students? We have not learned how to capitalize on schools’ social character to create the conditions that contribute to continued healthy growth.

  • Stagnating in Denial. Probably more than in most professions, educators are prone to denial—of their own and their schools’ need to improve. If students do not do well, we blame them or their parents. We seldom learn how our students turn out as adults. Teachers are more satisfied with their competence than with 29 other potential contributors to their morale. Such self-satisfaction fosters complacency and resistance to change. An average of 42 percent of teachers use words like traditional, cautious, and conforming to describe their schools; only 20 percent use words indicative of openness to growth, like adventurous, changeable, and optimistic.

    Out of more than 600 deans of education sent personal correspondence on how to assess a school’s social system—student and faculty morale, and various attributes of a school’s culture and students’ character—not one dean requested further information or resources that were offered.

    Few educators willingly seek to discover what their enduring effects may be, or whether they have created the learning environment necessary for even potentially desirable solutions to take root.

What does the future hold for our schools? With this sharper definition of schools’ “problem,” we have a tool that could prefigure the likely success of specific reforms. We know more about the critical attributes that describe an effective school—what I have called a “school of hope.” We have ways to assess a school’s morale, culture, and health, as well as its receptiveness to improvement.

We also know that public and private schools can surmount these psychological bars to become effective “schools of hope.” In Michigan, the Bloomfield Hills school district’s innovative Model High School and, in Delaware, the St. Andrews School’s more traditional upper school provide models that have been studied in great depth.

These are schools of hope: They listen to their students; value highly the healthy growth of students’ character, as well as their minds; use their small size to create self-renewing cultures; and seek to hold themselves honestly and meaningfully accountable for creating a healthy learning environment for their members.

This is the path to hope for America’s schools and for its children.

Douglas H. Heath is a professor emeritus of psychology at Haverford College in Haverford, Pa. Data used in this essay are drawn from his books Schools of Hope: Developing Mind and Character in Today’s Youth (Jossey-Bass, 1994); Morale, Culture, and Character: Assessing Schools of Hope; and Assessing Schools of Hope: Methods, Norms, and Case Studies (Conrow Publishing House).

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Psychological Bars To School Improvement


Student Well-Being Webinar Boosting Teacher and Student Motivation During the Pandemic: What It Takes
Join Alyson Klein and her expert guests for practical tips and discussion on how to keep students and teachers motivated as the pandemic drags on.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Holistic Approach to Social-Emotional Learning
Register to learn about the components and benefits of holistically implemented SEL.
Content provided by Committee for Children
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Principals Can Support Student Well-Being During COVID
Join this webinar for tips on how to support and prioritize student health and well-being during COVID.
Content provided by Unruly Studios

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Interdisciplinary STEAM Specialist
Smyrna, Georgia
St. Benedict's Episcopal School
Interdisciplinary STEAM Specialist
Smyrna, Georgia
St. Benedict's Episcopal School
Arizona School Data Analyst - (AZVA)
Arizona, United States
K12 Inc.
Software Engineer
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Opinion Teaching's 'New Normal'? There's Nothing Normal About the Constant Threat of Death
As the bizarre becomes ordinary, don't forget what's at stake for America's teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Justin Minkel.
4 min read
14Minkel IMG
School Climate & Safety Letter to the Editor Invisibility to Inclusivity for LGBTQ Students
To the Editor:
I read with interest “The Essential Traits of a Positive School Climate” (Special Report: “Getting School Climate Right: A Guide for Principals,” Oct. 14, 2020). The EdWeek Research Center survey of principals and teachers provides interesting insight as to why there are still school climate issues for LGBTQ students.
1 min read
School Climate & Safety As Election 2020 Grinds On, Young Voters Stay Hooked
In states like Georgia, the push to empower the youth vote comes to fruition at a time when “every vote counts” is more than just a slogan.
6 min read
Young people celebrate the presidential election results in Atlanta. Early data on the 2020 turnout show a spike in youth voting, with Georgia, which faces a pair of senatorial runoffs, an epicenter of that trend.
Young people celebrate the presidential election results in Atlanta. Early data on the 2020 turnout show a spike in youth voting, with Georgia, which faces a pair of senatorial runoffs, an epicenter of that trend.
Brynn Anderson/AP
School Climate & Safety Opinion The Pandemic Is Raging. Here's How to Support Your Grieving Students
What do students who have experienced a loss need in the classroom? Brittany R. Collins digs into the science.
Brittany R. Collins
5 min read
13Collins IMG
Benjavisa Ruangvaree/iStock