Among the top-performing countries on the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, one common factor stood out: respect for education. In high-achieving nations, it is part of the culture and a tenet embraced by families, teachers, and government.
In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama cited respect for learning as a central value a week after Nicholas Kristof noted in The New York Times that the PISA leaders (Finland, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, Japan, and South Korea) have a “legacy of reverence for education.” For the Asian cultures, this is a millennia-long tradition, while Finland and Canada more recently established education as a priority with the knowledge that treating educators and the education system with respect is the only way to actualize that priority.
PISA data underscore that the climate of the school—with regard to disciplinary practices, teacher-student relationships, and a positive atmosphere and tone set by teachers—contributes specifically to higher reading scores. In most countries and economies within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, where PISA is conducted, schools with better teacher-student relationships tend to perform better; respect is an essential ingredient in these relationships.
Across OECD countries, when students report that they do not feel they can work well in class most of the time, that other students do not listen to them, and that their teacher has to wait a long time before students settle down to learn, achievement is likely to be compromised. Even small rates of these behaviors can create school climates that are not conducive to learning. When educators attempt to impose obedience, often in a sincere but misguided attempt to regain instructional time for math and reading (vs. respectful creation of a common community of learners with sound character), the difficulties are compounded and an accelerating spiral of coercive negative relationships ensues. Achievement does not.
Respect is not a panacea, but it is a necessary, even if not sufficient, condition for effective schooling and desired student outcomes. Our Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Research Lab has examined the relationship between the degree of bullying in school, the extent to which students felt they were being given useful strategies to handle bullying, and their perception of the school climate. Data from 115 schools and 48 districts, including 48,000 students across the state, over a two-year period, for disadvantaged schools vs. others, and for elementary, middle, and high schools, were remarkably consistent.
Among the key findings were these:
• Bullying was related to the climate of the school and was most strongly and significantly related to the respect that students felt in the school, especially among their peers; where there was a respectful environment, bullying was less likely to exist.
• The extent to which students felt they were truly learning strategies to cope with bullying in their schools was most strongly related to the extent to which they perceived teachers as being caring and supportive to students and to one another, and secondarily to the extent to which students felt they were respected and included in shaping their school environment in positive ways. Students appear to find bullying-prevention and -intervention messages valuable when staff members are seen as genuinely caring and when students are engaged in the school.
We also looked at 13,593 students in 21 high schools and found that the correlation between bullying and a climate of respect, caring, and student participation averaged approximately -.80. That is, to a powerful and significant degree, the presence of these positive climate elements in schools is inversely related to the degree of bullying. In essence, disrespect is the oxygen that fuels the fire of bullying-related behaviors to a significant degree, and when it is cut off and replaced by respect, bullying declines and learning is more likely to ensue.
Schools with better teacher-student relationships tend to perform better; respect is an essential ingredient in these relationships."
Whether learning in fact ensues will be determined by the presence of sound pedagogical strategies; challenging, developmentally appropriate, and well-sequenced curricula; the presence of problem-based and cooperative learning; and effective, appropriate, timely, and adequate instructional and personal supports when needed by students. However, respect is what allows these to be delivered credibly, pervasively, and equitably.
What Must We Do Next? In the United States, political leaders have seriously undermined respect for education and for teachers. It has been said many times and in many ways, but students will not respect what is taught until and unless they respect who is teaching and feel respected in turn. Many children enter the school building every day with a variety of social-emotional issues that they must put aside before they can adequately start learning. In many cases, little happens in school to help remove or assuage their emotional barriers to learning. Nowhere is this truer than in underperforming schools. These students need to enter buildings in which they feel genuinely welcomed and subsequently surrounded with confident expectations, caring, challenges, support, safety, and respect. Then, they can learn.
There is extensive research, most efficiently summarized at the websites of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, the Character Education Partnership and its National Schools of Character Program, and the National School Climate Center, showing the inextricable connection between conditions that foster students’ social-emotional and character development in schools and their academic success, defined in terms of scores, grades, and what they are able to accomplish in the world with what they have learned. Being part of a respectful community of learners, in which all students are included, is the cornerstone of success. We know how to do this; the pathways are clearly illustrated at the websites above.
Upon reflection, it is not difficult to grasp the role of respect in contributing to PISA and other test results. The concept of respect is pervasive, applying to self, a diverse range of others, all of the relationships in and around schools, and the tasks and settings in which one is involved. However, implementing the tenets of respect deeply in our education system where it does not already exist is not simple or fast. Widespread expertise in both social-emotional and character development of students and the creation of respectful school climates must be cultivated, and skills and cultures take time to nurture and grow. We cannot rush developmental processes. But when the roots of change are deep, fads, whims, and unfortunate circumstances are not likely to topple the gains made. Respected students are very likely to respect the learning process and ultimately become respectful, and respected, citizens.
A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2011 edition of Education Week