Educational researchers and educators are increasingly recognizing the importance of school climate in efforts to improve student outcomes. There is growing interest in school climate reform because the evidence shows that school climate promotes safety, healthy relationships and highly engaged teaching and learning (Thapa, A., et al, 2012; Cohen, McCabe, Michelli, & Pickeral, 2009; Cohen & Geier, 2010). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2009) and the Institute for Educational Sciences (Dynarski, Clarke, Cobb, Finn, Rumberger, & Smink, 2008) concludes that school climate reform is an important strategy that promotes healthy relationships, school connectedness, and a sound strategy for dropout prevention.
More specifically, there is extensive research that shows school climate as having a profound impact on a variety of student outcomes such as mental and psychiatric status, physical health, self-esteem/self-concept, substance abuse, chronic absenteeism, suspensions, reduced harassment and less aggression or violence (Kuperminic, Leadbeater, & Blatt, 2001; Way, Reddy, & Rhodes, 2007; LaRusso, Romer, & Selman, 2008; LaRusso et al., 2008; Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1989; Lee, Cornell, Gregory & Fan, 2011; Kosciw & Elizabeth, 2006; Gregory, Cornell, Fan, Sheras, Shih, & Huang, 2010).
Additionally, the evidence suggests that positive school climate is critical to effective risk prevention (Berkowitz & Bier, 2006) and having a powerful influence on the motivation to learn (Eccles et al., 1993), and ameliorating the negative effects of socioeconomic status on academic success (Ortega, Sanchez, Ortega Rivera, & Viejo, 2011).
School Climate Defined
The National School Climate Council (2007) defines school climate in the following manner:
“School climate is based on patterns of people’s experiences of school life and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures… A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and learning necessary for a productive, contributing, and satisfying life in a democratic society. This climate includes norms, values, and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe. People are engaged and respected. Students, families and educators work together to develop, live, and contribute to a shared school vision. Educators model and nurture an attitude that emphasizes the benefits of, and satisfaction from, learning. Each person contributes to the operations of the school as well as the care of the physical environment.”
The National School Climate Center has identified 13 specific dimensions of school climate that can be conceptualized as falling into 3 broad categories: Safety, Relationships and teaching and learning. Feeling safe in school is critical in the promotion of student learning and healthy development (Devine & Cohen, 2007) and we know from Maslow (1947) that safety is a basic human need.
However, there is a great deal of research that shows in schools “without supportive norms, structures, and relationships, the students are more likely to experience violence, peer-victimization, and punitive disciplinary actions, and often accompanied by high levels of absenteeism, and reduced academic achievement.” (Astor, Guerra, & Van Acker, 2010). One key element of the safety domain is having clearly defined and enforced rules and norms. Studies show the importance of school rules and perceived fairness in regard to dealing with students’ behavior and schools in which rules are effectively enforced have better behavioral performance in all areas and less disciplinary issues (Gottfredson, Gottfredson, Payne, & Gottfredson, 2005).
The process of teaching and learning is effectively built around positive relationships. The patterns of interactions, values and norms form the foundation for relationships in schools and bear directly upon school climate. Use of supportive teaching practices such as: encouragement and constructive feedback; varied opportunities to demonstrate knowledge and skills; support for risk-taking and independent thinking; and an atmosphere conducive to dialogue and questioning; academic challenge; and individual attention will create a supportive teaching and learning environment (National Center for School Climate, 2019).
School climate is viewed so essential for quality education that state and federal educational agencies are putting forth grant opportunities to support these transformative and effective reform efforts (i.e., Safe and Supportive Schools grant program).
An associated framework for conceptualizing school climate is the Authoritative School Climate (ASC) model and it is an important approach to building positive school climate and the associated positive student outcomes (Gregory, Cornell, & Fan, 2011; Konold & Cornell, 2015a). The two central components of an authoritative school climate are high structure (or high expectations) and student support.
In authoritative schools, high structure is defined as having clear and high expectations for discipline and academic work ethic. Staff have high academic expectations for their students to work hard and learn at high levels. Students also experience school rules that are clear, strict and equitable for all students. Staff will engage students in deep conversations around academic and behavioral goals and they have a chance to explain when accused of doing something wrong. The behavioral expectations in an authoritative school must be distinguished and are different from “zero tolerance” models where students are punished harshly. Authoritative school climates have lower suspension rates than other schools (Catizone, Cornell, & Konold, 2018; Gregory et al., 2010; Huang & Cornell, 2018) and also supports the potential to help schools reduce disproportionate suspension rates for students of color (Huang & Cornell, 2018). A review of the literature shows that authoritative school climates achieve lower suspension rates independently of other student and demographic variables so the positive impacts are experienced by students in all racial/ethnic groups (Konold, T., Cornell, D., Jia, Y., & Malone, M., 2017).
Support for students is essential for creating positive relationships and is characterized both by adult respect for students and students trusting the adults and being willing to seek help. Johnson’s (2009) review of 25 studies concluded that “schools with less violence tend to have students who are aware of school rules and believe they are fair” and “have positive relationships with their teachers” (p. 451). The overall evidence supports the use of supportive authoritative school practices and is associated with improved academic outcomes. Pellerin (2005) found supportive authoritative practices in schools produced less truancy and reduced dropout rates. Schools with supportive authoritative school climates had higher levels of student engagement (Gill et al., 2004) and reading achievement (Lee, 2012).
Konold, et. al’s., 2018 study of the relationships between authoritative school climate (structure and support), academic achievement and student engagement points toward the positive impact of school climate interventions as a means of increasing student engagement which then produces greater learning and achievement. Schools with a more authoritative school climate had higher levels of student engagement, with both direct and indirect effects on academic achievement. The authoritative school climate model accounted for 65% of the variance in student engagement and 77% of the variance in academic achievement. These findings provide strong evidence for understanding that a positive school climate leads students’ to be more engaged in school and results in higher academic performance.