Summary and Keywords
Educational practitioners and researchers have increasingly recognized the importance of the context in which learning occurs, particularly the influence of school climate on students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes. School climate is based on the subjective experiences of school life for students, staff members, school leaders, parents, and the entire school community. A school’s climate reflects its norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures. A large body of evidence connects a positive school climate to improvements in children’s learning and healthy development in school. A positive school climate is also an essential component within comprehensive school improvement processes. Nonetheless, the divergence and disagreement in defining and measuring school climate in the literature are evident. There is a major interest in school climate improvement and school climate policy. However, the policy context that supports school climate varies considerably across the United States and internationally. Clarification regarding the dimensions of school climate and continued research on how a positive school climate contributes to both school and student outcomes remain important.
There is increasing attention in the research and practice literature to school-level contextual factors that support students’ short- and long-term psychosocial and academic outcomes. One central and often discussed school-level construct known to promote students’ overall healthy development in schools is school climate. School climate is a broad, multifaceted concept that involves numerous aspects of the entire contextual and structural elements of a school. Educators, policymakers, and educational leaders from around the world have invested in developing numerous resources and services for improving school climate (Thapa, Cohen, Guffey, & Higgins-D’Alessandro, 2013).
This article provides an overview of key issues related to school climate, starting with the evolution of the construct over time and the ongoing debates regarding its definition. The text discusses critical considerations in school climate monitoring and measurement to support school practitioners in the process of school improvement. It also will present research on outcomes associated with overall school climate, as well as how theories that consider schools embedded in ecological contexts are best suited to frame school climate improvement efforts. Finally, the article will synthesize policy interventions to improve school climate, concluding with implications for school climate research, practice, and policy.
Evolving Definitions of School Climate
The definition of school climate has evolved considerably over the past several decades. Halpin and Croft (1963), early pioneers of school climate research, defined school climate in terms of teachers’ perceptions of the school’s personality. The school’s personality was conceptualized as teachers’ perceptions of school routines, behaviors, and interactions among teachers and administrators (Halpin & Croft, 1963). Over the next two decades, researchers began to emphasize the importance of students’ perspectives in understanding and defining school climate. For example, Pyper, Freiberg, Ginsburg, and Spuck (1987) defined school climate in terms of students’ perceptions of the support that they receive from teachers, respect among students, and fair enforcement of school rules. Extending the work of Pyper et al. (1987), Simons-Morton and Crump (2003) focused in their definition particularly on students’ perceptions of teacher support, clarity and enforcement of school rules, and the measure of respect among students.
Definitions of school climate were broadened even further during the 1990s and 2000s. For instance, the construct was conceptualized to include other aspects of the school experience, including a safe and respectful school environment (Brand, Felner, Shim, Seitsinger, & Dumas, 2003). Hoy and Hannum (1997) referred to schools with a positive climate as healthy schools, where there is harmony between the teaching and learning functions of the school, the managerial aspects of the school, and the relationships with external community partners. In addition, the concept of school climate was expanded to include the perceptions of other school stakeholders, such as parents and community members (Bear et al., 2014; Brand, Felner, Seitsinger, Burns, & Bolton, 2008).
As a way to suggest a comprehensive and unifying meaning of the term, the National Center for Learning and Citizenship (2007) defined school climate as consisting of (a) safety, (b) teaching and learning, (c) relationships, and (d) the institutional environment. The term safety refers to physical and social/emotional safety and clear school rules and norms. The dimension of teaching and learning focuses on teaching strategies used in the classroom that support learning and on those that promote social and civic learning opportunities and skills. Relationships include interactions between and among students and adults, as well as a respect among individuals of their diversity and differences. The institutional environment concerns the physical surrounding, resources and supplies, and a sense of connectedness and engagement to the school (National Center for Learning and Citizenship, 2007).
A group of senior researchers, policymakers, and representatives of the U.S. Department of Education also proposed a model for school climate evaluation, the “Safe and Supportive Schools Model.” In this model, a positive school climate is the product of a school’s attention to fostering safety, to promoting a supportive academic, disciplinary, and physical environment, and to encouraging and maintaining respectful, trusting, and caring relationships throughout the school community (American Institutes for Research, 2016). This model consists of three main dimensions—engagement, safety, and the learning environment. Engagement refers to the extent to which strong relationships exist among all school stakeholders (e.g., students, teachers, families, community partners). Safety refers to a school climate where students feel physically and emotionally safe. The last dimension in this model is the learning environment, which refers to the quality of the facilities, the supports in place for learning and health, and procedures for discipline (NCSSLE, 2013).
It is noteworthy that some scholars also distinguish between a school’s social climate and pedagogical climate, often termed pedagogical environment. The pedagogical environment is comprised of the quality and relevance of the curriculum (Barton, 2003), teacher education level and training (Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2004; Akiba, LeTendre, & Scribner, 2007), teachers’ opportunities for professional development in schools (Mayer, Mullens, & Moore, 2000), and teacher burnout (Goddard, O’Brien, & Goddard, 2006). Although boundaries between social and pedagogical fields may exist, they tend to be blurred. For example, instruction is considered as a pedagogical aspect of climate, but it also includes social elements and focuses on teacher-student relationships.
Defining school climate is an important step for schools as they engage in school climate improvement efforts. How a school defines school climate is directly related to how the construct will be measured, evaluated, and improved. Thus, a critical first step for any school climate improvement effort necessarily starts with defining school climate as a construct so that reliable and valid measurement and evaluation can occur (Cohen, 2006).
Social climate also exists on a classroom level, as the classroom is the central context in which learning, student-to-student interactions, and teacher-student interactions occur. The quality of social interactions in a classroom forms its classroom emotional climate (CEC) (Reyes, Brackett, Rivers, White, & Salovey, 2012). A classroom typified with positive emotional climate has (a) teachers attentive to student needs; (b) warm, caring, nurturing, and friendly teacher-student relationships; (c) teachers considerate of student needs; and (d) teachers who avoid sarcasm and harsh disciplinary measures (Hamre & Pianta, 2005). Furthermore, in a positive CEC, the teacher fosters a sense of ease and enjoyment by demonstrating positive regard and warmth in interactions with students. The teacher is sensitive to the child and manifests awareness of the child’s needs, moods, interests, and capabilities and allows this awareness to guide his or her behavior with the child (Allen et al., 2013).
Researchers note a tendency in recent years to include elements in climate definitions than were previously considered elements of classroom or school climate (Berkowitz, Moore, Astor, & Benbenishty, 2016). For example, elements of social emotional learning (SEL) tend to be included now, particularly because supportive and significant relationships are frequently evident in climate definitions and measurement tools (CASEL, n.d.). Other elements that can currently be found within school climate definitions are characteristics of character education (CE) (Schwartz, Beatty, & Dachnowicz, 2006), such as caring, empathy, and tolerance of others. School bullying (e.g., Swearer, Espelage, Vaillancourt, & Hymel, 2010) is also included in more recent school climate definitions, such as those of Bear et al. (2014).
Overall, defining school climate has been a challenge, and the divergence and disagreement in the literature are evident. Future research may show which aspects of climate are associated with important outcomes, so that over time, the most essential aspects of the definition are retained. Berkowitz et al. (2016) argue that there is a need to establish a concrete, clear definition so that educational researchers and practitioners will have a foundation for measuring and evaluating school climate and developing climate improvement interventions. As reviewed in the next section, it is clear that divergent school climate definitions are evident in available school climate measurement scales.
Measuring School Climate
In the absence of a clear consensus on the definition of school climate, a myriad of measurement tools are available, focusing on different aspects of climate. School climate measurements may assess numerous aspects of a school’s climate or focus on only select domains. School climate may be based on the different perspectives of the school community or assessed through direct or indirect measurement. Whichever instrument is chosen, school climate measurement should be suited for use among the different stakeholder groups (students, teachers, school leadership and other staff members, and parents), and for use in a specific school setting (from pre-K to high school). Educational practitioners and researchers should also strive to use measurement tools that have been sufficiently researched for their validity and reliability so that measurement would contribute to an evaluation’s fairness, accuracy, and utility. Nonetheless, psychometric analyses of available school climate scales have rarely been conducted (Clifford, Menon, Gangi, Condon, & Hornung, 2012). As a result, no comprehensive methodological reviews of school climate instruments currently exist in the peer-reviewed literature (O’Malley, Katz, Renshaw, & Furlong, 2012).
Choosing a suitable measure to fit the specific needs of the school setting and circumstances may pose a challenge for education researchers and practitioners striving to advance school reform. Next, we discuss critical considerations for selecting a school climate measurement tool.
A first important consideration is to identify what aspects of school climate need to be assessed and measured in a specific context. In keeping with school climate definitions, some measurement tools assess school climate more broadly. For example, the California School Climate Survey (CSCS) measures staff perceptions of collegiality, resource provisions and training, professional development, student learning environment, caring and respectful relationships, expectations of students, opportunities for meaningful participation, cultural sensitivity, clarity and equity of discipline policies, school safety, learning facilitative behavior, and learning barriers (California Department of Education, n.d.). The school climate measurement tools for students [Inventory of School Climate–Students (ISC-S), used by Brand et al. (2003)], and for teachers [Inventory of School Climate–Teachers (ISC-T), used by Brand et al. (2008)] focus on elements such as interpersonal relationships and support, clarity of rules and disciplinary harshness, support for cultural pluralism and diversity, achievement orientation and instruction, and safety.
Another example for an inclusive measure is the Comprehensive School Climate Inventory (CSCI), suggested by the National School Climate Center. In accordance with its broad definition of school climate, the CSCI assesses 13 dimensions of school climate within the categories of safety (ruler and norms, sense of physical and social emotional security); teaching and learning (support for learning, social and civic learning); interpersonal relationships (respect for diversity, social support); institutional environment (school connectedness/engagement, physical surrounding); social media (students’ sense of safety when online or on electronic devices); and leadership and professional relationships (supportive and innovative administration and positive relationships among staff).
Other school climate measures are shorter, and thus may be more pragmatic for school practitioners and researchers working under time or resource constraints. An example of a shorter measurement tool is the Brief California School Climate Survey (B-CSCS; You, O’Malley, & Furlong, 2013). Adapted from the CSCS, the B-CSCS measures teachers’ reports on relational supports (relationships between and among staff and students, belief and encouragement of student success, investment in school performance) and organizational supports (school academic and behavioral standards, expectations for student performance, support for staff and parent needs).
Another example of a brief measurement tool is the Organizational Climate Index (OCI), which measures teachers’ perceptions of principal leadership, teacher professionalism, encouragement for students to perform academically, and vulnerability to the community (Hoy, Smith, & Sweetland, 2002). Sink and Spencer (2007) have also developed the Teacher Version of My Class Inventory—Short Form, which assesses teachers’ perceptions of the classroom climate across five dimensions: (a) overall student satisfaction with the learning experience, (b) peer relations, (c) difficulty level of classroom materials, (d) student competitiveness, and (e) school counselor impact on the learning environment.
Another consideration in selecting a school climate measurement strategy is whose perspective to assess (Iachini, 2015). Parents, teachers, and students do not necessarily share the same school climate experiences, even within the same school (Benbenishty & Astor, 2005; Booren, Handy, & Power, 2010). For example, students may experience positive relationships with their peers and thus be more prone to report a positive school climate, while their teachers may experience low support from colleagues and school leadership and thus report a negative school climate. Similarly, parents may also experience school climate differently than their children, depending on the school’s efforts to engage them (Baquedano-López, Alexander, & Hernandez, 2013). Further, parents’ and staff members’ perceptions of school climate are important in and of themselves, as they are known to correlate with children’s learning, healthy development, and success in school (e.g., Berkowitz et al., 2015; Bunting, Drew, Lasseigne, & Anderson-Butcher, 2013; O’Malley & Hanson, 2012). Correlates were also found between teacher reports on climate and their job satisfaction, which later influenced student grades (Cohen, McCabe, Michelli, & Pickeral, 2009). Evidence also shows that parents’ perceptions regarding school climate are related to student outcomes (Hill & Taylor, 2004; Hill & Tyson, 2009); however, these associations with parental perceptions of school climate were far less supported in the literature.
School climate improvement requires a collective investment in a shared vision for planning, promoting, enhancing, and sustaining a positive school climate. In addition, stakeholders must consider that the entire school environment contributes to student success, not just a single element. Thus, it is critical to gauge the perceptions of the entire school community, students, parents, teachers, school leaders, and other staff members. For that purpose, tools are available that can assess school climate perceptions of each of these stakeholder groups. For example, various versions of the Delaware School Climate Surveys were developed, with one developed for students (DSCS-S; Bear, Gaskin, Blank, & Chen, 2011), another for teachers (DSCS-T; Bear, Yang, Pell, & Gaskins, 2014), and a third for parents (DSCS-H; Bear, Yang, & Pasipanodya, 2015). These three versions measure interpersonal relations between teachers and students, relations among students, respect for diversity, fairness of rules, clarity of expectations, bullying, and school safety. Surveys for parents and teachers both address the relationships between the school and home, and the teacher survey also measures the degree of students’ engagement in the school. The significant advantage to this series of measurements lies in the similarity between these tools, allowing schools to compare the different perspectives of students, teachers, and parents using relatively simple and short questionnaires (Bear et al., 2014). The CSCI measurement tool also recognizes student, parent, and school personnel voice (National School Climate Center, 2015). The CSCI was ranked as one of the only psychometrically sound scales for assessing staff members’ climate perceptions based on its sufficient reliability and validity (O’Malley et al., 2012).
Schools are also encouraged to evaluate their readiness to apply school climate improvement efforts using the Readiness Assessment tool. This tool evaluates the strengths and needs of the school that shape the planning and preparation for the school improvement process, such as the school commitment for school climate improvement or whether the school has adequate resources to support the process.
There are several other considerations in the selection of school climate assessment tools that are important for educational researchers and practitioners. Some tools are available in the public domain and are therefore free to use, such as the Academic Optimism of Schools Survey (Hoy, n.d.), the Conditions for Learning Survey (American Institutes for Research, n.d.), and the California Healthy Kids Survey (WestEd, n.d.). Others, however, can be used only when they are purchased, such as the Pride Learning Environment Survey (Pride Surveys, n.d.). In addition, some tools are available online, while others are available only in paper-and-pencil formats. And some tools are available in other languages, such as Spanish, while some are available only in English. Both educational researchers and practitioners need to consider these differences when selecting a tool. For example, if resources are limited, then practitioners would have to consider which tool might work best that is also free and in the public domain.
Overall, this section highlights the complexity of selecting a measurement tool to assess school climate and details the factors that may inform that choice, including an instrument’s technical soundness, length, cost, language, and measurement perspective of school climate. A School Climate Survey Compendia, available through the National Center on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments (2013), and additional comprehensive articles (e.g., Clifford et al., 2012; Kohl, Recchia, & Steffgen, 2013) provide broad and inclusive lists of scientifically sound school climate measures to help educational researchers and practitioners to select a school climate measure.
Research on School Climate
Researchers have utilized many of the previously mentioned school climate measurement tools to explore the relationship between school climate and a range of educational outcomes. The relationship between school climate and academic achievement, for example, has been studied extensively (Osher, Spier, Kendziora, & Cai, 2009; Shindler, Jones, Taylor, & Cadenas, 2004; Thapa et al., 2013). A positive school climate has been found to be associated with higher academic achievement (Berkowitz et al., 2015; Shindler, Jones, Williams, Taylor, & Cadenas, 2009). Research also has identified that positive school climate may serve an especially important role in promoting academic achievement for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and among more oppressed populations (Astor, Benbenishty, & Estrada, 2009; Berkowitz et al., 2016).
In addition to academic achievement, school climate has been found to be associated with other important youth development outcomes. A healthy school climate was associated with a range of more positive emotional, mental health, physical health, and behavioral outcomes for students (Thapa et al., 2013). Positive climate was also associated with increased self-esteem, more positive behavioral adjustment, fewer depressive symptoms (Brand et al., 2003; Roeser, Eccles, & Sameroff, 1998; Way, Reddy, & Rhodes, 2007), fewer psychiatric problems (LaRusso, Romer, & Selman, 2008; Ruus et al., 2007), and with a range of other more positive mental health outcomes (De Pedro, Astor, Gilreath, Benbenishty, & Berkowitz, 2015; Kuperminic, Leadbeater, Emmons, & Blatt, 1997; LaRusso, Romer, & Selman, 2008; Payton et al., 2008; Shochet, Dadds, Ham, & Montague, 2006).
School climate also has been associated with student engagement in more positive behaviors, such as cooperative learning and respect (Thapa et al., 2013), fewer discipline referrals and school suspensions (Lee, Cornell, Gregory, & Fan, 2011; Nelson, Martella, & Marchand-Martella, 2002), and with less bullying and other aggressive and violent behaviors in school (De Pedro, Astor, Gilreath, Benbenishty, & Berkowitz, 2016; Swearer et al., 2010; Espelage & Swearer, 2009).
Scholars further associate a positive school climate with improved teachers and school staff outcomes. For example, a positive school climate was associated with greater job satisfaction for teachers, increased work productivity and efficacy (Bevans, Bradshaw, Miech, & Leaf, 2007), increased retention (Loeb, Darling-Hammond, & Luczak, 2005), and decreased reports of burnout (Grayson & Alvarez, 2008).
Overall, school climate has a positive impact on students’ academic, social, and psychological development at school and has important implications for effective risk prevention, health promotion, and school violence prevention efforts. Nonetheless, with a few exceptions (e.g., Benbenishty, Astor, Roziner, & Wrabel, 2016), the vast majority of studies on school climate are correlational. Although most studies indicate significant correlations between a positive climate and improved social, emotional, and academic outcomes, these studies do not provide a basis for deducing a directional influence or causal relationship between school climate and students’ outcomes. Thus, caution should be used when inferring that climate has positive effects in and of itself, when other factors associated with a positive school climate (e.g., higher academic outcomes) may be responsible for the positive outcomes. Additional research should be conducted to establish a knowledge base that will facilitate school climate and improvement in student outcomes. The lack of longitudinal or experimental research designs to inform knowledge and theory on the influence of a positive school climate on students’ outcomes highlights a particular need that would allow an examination of the causal influences of school climate.
School Climate Improvement
The large body of evidence connecting a positive school climate to improved children’s learning, healthy development, and success in school suggests that the context in which learning occurs matters. Scholars are increasingly calling for an intentional focus on the ecological systems in which children learn (e.g., Benbenishty & Astor, 2005; Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Swearer & Espelage, 2012). Multiple educational researchers have conceptualized schools as the center of a larger system, embedded within multiple social contexts that interact with the surrounding social, cultural, and physical environments (e.g., Comer & Haynes, 1991; Newmann & Wehlage, 1995). Current approaches to school improvement and change processes are grounded in such an ecological theory and recognize how characteristics of the individual, family, school, and other layers of the environment affect individual students’ learning and behavior (Bronfenbrenner, 2005; Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010). Evidence suggests that systematic, schoolwide changes that are implemented at all school levels and target numerous intervention agents, including peers, teachers and other staff members, school leaders, and parents produce better outcomes for students (Dary & Pickeral, 2013; Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011; Felner et al., 2001; Schapps, 2003).
School climate experts assert that school climate improvement efforts should be a cyclical and continuous process of preparation, measurement and evaluation, implementation of an action plan, and reevaluation (National School Climate Council, 2012, 2015). This process supports the school community in achieving a shared vision and plan for promoting, enhancing, and sustaining a positive school climate. The school community should then set policies and practices aimed at promoting emotional, ethical, civic, and intellectual skills; addressing barriers to learning and students’ school engagement; and developing and sustaining appropriate operational infrastructure and capacity-building mechanisms. The school community also needs to create an environment where all members are welcomed and supported and feel socially, emotionally, intellectually, and physically safe, and to develop meaningful practices, activities, and norms that promote social and civic responsibilities and commitment to social justice (Cohen, 2006; Devine & Cohen, 2007). This process of continuous school improvement efforts is also promoted in the school improvement implementation empirical literature (e.g., Blase, Van Dyke, & Fixsen, 2013; Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, & LeMahieu, 2015; Bryk et al., 2010; Fullan, 2011).
The importance of school climate improvement is further highlighted in the fact that positive school climate fosters acceptance of change in schools (Center on Education Policy, 2012; Cohen, 2014; Gregory, Henry, & Schoeny, 2007; McEvoy & Welker, 2000). Positive school climate is also needed for developing youth leadership and engagement (Williams, 2009), to promote social and emotional learning (Durlak et al., 2011), to enhance the inclusion of disabled adults and students (Coulston & Smith, 2013), and to support school dropout prevention efforts (Hammond, Linton, Smink, & Drew, 2007).
Improving school climate is important. Nonetheless, intervention programs published in the peer-reviewed literature are mostly centered on a limited range of school climate elements, such as safety and violence or bullying prevention (Espelage, Gutgsell, & Swearer, 2004; Merrell, Gueldner, Ross, & Isava, 2008), social and emotional learning (Durlak et al., 2011), development of social skills, or relationships in the school (Linares et al., 2005). Empirical evidence supporting recommended intervention strategies aimed at addressing school climate as a whole is lacking. As such, current practice leaders and school professionals have no comprehensive intervention program or guidelines to provide direction on how to implement changes in a school or whether changes are based on the best knowledge available (Cohen et al., 2009). Furthermore, studies demonstrating that climate is a changeable factor, and documenting processes of change in school climate are lacking. This situation may stem from the absence of a clear, agreed-upon definition for school climate, which complicates the development of interventions that may then be evaluated for efficacy.
Research has also indicated that locally developed programs that are designed to address school needs specifically and are executed by the school community result in better outcomes (Marachi, Astor, & Benbenishty, 2013). Thus, schools that engage entire communities in designing their own climate improvement programs may be more likely to succeed in their efforts. Meaningful involvement of school community members in thinking about the kind of school climate that they envision can often allow successful implementation of school reform programs that develop holistically, with the whole school community reflecting a shared vision (Cohen, 2006; National School Climate Center, 2015).
The evidence for the impact of school climate on student and school staff outcomes is so compelling that school climate policy and intervention are major interests in countries throughout the world. In the next section, we review policy guidelines regarding school climate within the United States and internationally.
School Climate Policy
The policy context that supports school climate varies considerably across the United States and internationally. In the United States, there are currently several federal policies that promote and support positive school climate and help policymakers translate the emerging evidence on positive school climate into actionable steps, such as the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1994; the President’s Now Is the Time Initiative (The White House, 2013); and The Framework for Safe and Successful Schools (Cowan, Vaillancourt, Rossen, & Pollitt, 2013). In addition, the National School Climate Council (2009) has developed a set of school climate standards to guide school practice.
At the state level, most states have some policies related to school climate. Safety policies are the most common type of policy supporting school climate (Thapa, Cohen, Higgins-D’Alessandro, & Guffey, 2012). This is because many of these policies were established in response to bullying, school shootings, and suicide among students (Dwyer, Osher, & Warger, 1998; Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Community Act of 1994). Unfortunately, however, while a positive school climate is critical to student success, many states did not integrate school climate into the accountability system advanced through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Cohen et al., 2009; NCLB, 2001). Because NCLB primarily dictated the measurement of reading and mathematical skills, educational policy has been driven by those narrow measures. Thus, school climate policy is often marginalized in broader school improvement discussions, and many states only include school climate issues relating to safety, health, or special educational programs or policies (Cohen et al., 2009).
It is important to note, however, that recent federal education legislation—namely, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that was signed into law in 2015—may bring about positive changes. This new law includes several elements that may potentially promote more positive school climate in K–12 schools in the United States. It encourages schools to engage in activities that support safe and healthy students and calls on schools to develop improvement plans that support students at risk of school failure through more positive school climate, greater school safety, and supporting students’ mental and behavioral health. Further, students’ success is defined more broadly and now includes nonacademic factors, such as student engagement, school climate, and safety, in addition to academic outcomes when determining indicators of success; however, states will determine exactly how much each academic and nonacademic factor will count in school accountability ratings (Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015). As educational policies continue to evolve toward greater emphasis on the importance of a positive school climate, it is too soon to determine the extent to which states will conceptualize students’ school experiences more comprehensively and prioritize school climate improvement efforts.
Cohen and colleagues (2009, p. 188) suggested several criteria that can be used to assess national school climate policies:
• Definition: To what extent is school climate recognized and defined?
• Measurement: To what extent is school climate measured?
• Leadership: To what extent is there climate-related leadership at the state level?
• Accountability: To what extent have states included school climate in their general accountability systems?
• Improvement standards: To what extent is climate-related technical assistance a part of state accountability systems?
Their assessment showed that in the United States, many states either failed to include school climate in their general accountability system or did so only partially. In addition, the school climate policy statements in many states rely on vague, meaningless definitions of school climate that cannot be observed, quantified, and measured to support program development or evaluated for efficacy. Further, most U.S. departments of education fail to use scientific, research-proven school climate assessments. States also have failed to develop sound climate-related leadership and have isolated school climate policy in health, special education, and school safety arenas without integrating it into school accountability policies. Finally, Cohen et al. (2009) have indicated that many U.S. states do not determine a set of climate improvement standards that will connect research knowledge to school change processes, nor do they provide technical assistance to schools as part of their accountability systems.
Various international ministries of education also recognize school climate improvement and reform as integral for learning and teaching (Benbenishty & Astor, 2005, 2012; Cohen, 2015; Cohen et al., 2009; Shaeffer, 1999). And, similar to the United States, school climate policy varies considerably across countries (Cohen et al., 2009; Thapa et al., 2012, 2013).
In England, France, Israel, Scandinavian countries, and other countries in Europe, there is an emphasis on bullying and violence prevention within school climate policy. Efforts to advance more supportive school systems in England and France focus on antibullying and school violence prevention (DfE, 2012; Richard, Schneider, & Mallet, 2012). Likewise, school climate and school improvement policy in Israel is based on the assumption that only an educational environment where all students and staff members feel welcomed, respected, supported, engaged, and connected sets the foundation for a safe and violence-free school setting (Erhard & Zkaria, 2014; Circular Director General, 2015; Israel Ministry of Education, 2015). In Finland, school policy primarily focuses on bullying and school victimization. A comprehensive antibullying program called KiVa (“antibullying”) is implemented in the vast majority of Finnish schools (Ansary, Elias, Greene, & Green, 2015; KiVa, 2015; Salmivalli, Kärnä, & Poskiparta, 2011).
Despite the fact that there is an increased focus on school climate, both in the United States and internationally, continued school climate policy and intervention development are needed. Clarity around the definition of school climate, along with accountability systems that integrate as opposed to marginalize school climate, are imperative next steps in policy development.
Implication for School Climate Research, Practice, and Policy
Major challenges in the study of school climate, which are reflected in this article, are the significant differences in both school climate definitions and measurement tools available for educational practitioners and researchers striving to promote school improvement processes. These differences, as well as the challenges that they present to practitioners, reflect a tangible priority to facilitate definition and measurement clarity that may be used extensively to better support school improvement efforts (Berkowitz et al., 2015). Broad definitions of school climate, such as those of the U.S. Department of Education (NCSSLE, 2013) or the National School Climate Council (National Center for Learning and Citizenship, 2007), have the advantage of greater inclusiveness. Such definitions also help in gaining a better understanding of the school climate concept as a whole and its relationship to academic achievement and other social-emotional outcomes.
More research is also needed in order to develop and to evaluate intervention strategies aimed at addressing school climate as a whole, as opposed to strategies focusing on certain elements of school climate, such as safety, social and emotional learning, and relationships. One possible strategy to facilitate effective evidence-based interventions for climate improvement would be studying schools that have successfully implemented significant school climate improvements (e.g., Astor, Benbenishty, & Estrada, 2009). Indeed, leading National School Climate Council researchers recommend guidelines on facilitating effective, evidence-based interventions for school climate improvement. Specifically, they recommend developing a “bank” of case studies of schools that have successfully implemented significant school climate improvements, and establishing a learning forum to support schools in the midst of climate changing processes. They also recommend creating a network of field and research professionals committed to measuring and improving school climate to develop centers of excellence that others can learn from (for additional information, see Cohen et al., 2009; National Center for Learning and Citizenship, 2007).
Educators and school researchers also demonstrate the importance of designing school climate improvement strategies in collaboration with the entire school community so that interventions would be tailor-made to the specific school setting’s requirements and social-organizational characteristics, rather than only importing external models that have proved effective elsewhere. Such locally developed programs promote the entire school community in becoming coleaders in school improvement efforts and better support more positive student outcomes at school (Marachi, Astor, & Benbenishty, 2013; Morton & Montgomery, 2011; Pomerantz, Moorman, & Litwack, 2007).
In terms of school climate policy, this article demonstrates the need for continued school climate policy development, as well as the need to evaluate school climate policies further internationally (Cohen et al., 2009). While school climate is increasingly being recognized as a central and important component of school reform and improvement, prevailing accountability programs create barriers for school practitioners to improve school climate. As federal and state education policies appropriate funding and conceptual support mainly for content-based educational purposes and cognitive student learning, schools are being discouraged from investing efforts and resources in enhancing more positive climates (Thapa et al., 2013). Leading school climate and prosocial education researchers and school practice experts assert that academic instruction that does not occur within a supportive school environment is limited in terms of its impact on student outcomes (National School Climate Center, 2015). In light of educational policies calling on schools to increase student academic proficiency through state and federal reform legislation, investing efforts and resources in improving school climate seems a goal worth pursuing. Academic success is still considered the most central and important goal for schools, as current federal and state educational accountability systems worldwide persistently evaluate students’ academic achievements and academic growth. Connecting school success to academic achievements inadvertently discourage school leaders from embracing a continuous process of learning and school improvement. Potentially, when new laws call on schools to improve their social emotional and affective qualities, regardless of academic achievement (e.g., the ESSA in the United States), school leaderships, practitioners, and policymakers would be able to consider goal setting and improvement efforts that also include nonacademic factors, such as meaningful school engagement, health, safety, and positive school climate.
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