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Lesson 5.10

School Climate:
What Makes a School Good?

The teachers, the students, both, or neither?

hero image

The world's most famous school is imaginary. In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling introduces readers to Hogwarts, a school with tremendous personality — and a sorting hat.

At real schools, even without a magic hat, students tend to separate themselves into groups. The cool kids hang out in this hallway. Academic kids go to that one. The kids who speak Spanish tend to assemble over here. Kids into sports tend to gather over there.

To unify a group is hard, especially to do so in ways that respect and celebrate differences. School leaders, teachers and parent leaders can bridge differences with effort, desire and time. School works better when each student is included and motivated, but it doesn't just happen. Great teachers succeed partly by creating a culture that "works" for learning in their classrooms. Great schools create a culture of learning beyond individual classes or grades.

A climate of learning

The National School Climate Center defines school climate as "the quality and character of school life," or the at-school experiences (positive or negative) of students, teachers, and staff. Schooling climate has many dimensions: safety (see Lesson 5.13), social relationships, teaching/learning, and overall environment. If you're trying to assess your own school's climate, ask yourself...

  • Do I feel supported socially and emotionally?
  • Am I physically safe?
  • Do my teachers create a positive, growth-oriented learning environment?
  • Am I engaged in school? Is my voice valued?

Elements of school climate

'Bully-victim behavior' is a public health problem affecting up to a quarter of students every year.

A growing body of research backs up the common sense observation that school climate matters, and it can be developed intentionally. The National School Climate Center assembled research on school climate in A Review of School Climate Research. This rather dense academic report suggests that "school climate" can be thought of in five dimensions. Here are the actionable conclusions:

  1. Take bullying seriously. Although physical assault is rare in most schools, bullying is common and corrosive, and the effects are long-lasting. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, bully-victim behavior is a public health problem affecting up to a quarter of students every year. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, approximately 5.4 million students skip school at some point in the year due to bullying. Victims of bullying often remain quiet out of shame or fear. Healthy school climate supports the idea that trouble is best avoided before it happens. In particular, a school culture that demonizes "tattle-tales" or "snitches" is set up for trouble. It's hard to feel sympathy for bullies, but they warrant attention, too. Bullying behavior strongly predicts future trouble with the law, among other things.
  2. Invest in relationships. School is personal. Students may or may not love the subject matter of a class, but they decide quickly and intuitively whether teachers care about them and whether they care about their peers. Teacher absenteeism and turnover are measurable warning signs of troubled relationships in a school climate.
  3. Take learning seriously. Successful schools make learning the central activity, and support teachers to make it so.
  4. Light up the dark spots. Bad things happen less often in spaces that are supervised.
  5. Create a plan to improve your school's climate. Don't leave it to chance. This turns out to be really hard to do unless you have a clear point of view about what improvement looks like and how to measure it.

A student's sense of safety and belonging is often tied to their social identities. Research by WestEd on the racial school climate gap suggests that students of color feel less safe and included at school than their white peers do. To address this problem head-on, some schools work to develop an anti-racist school culture. Check out this list of actionable items for advancing equity in schools post-pandemic. A buzzword worth knowing: intersectionality, which gestures at the idea that identity can have overlapping elements, and that students can face more than one form of disadvantage.

Measuring school climate

School climate clearly matters a lot, but many of its qualities are hard to measure. School districts are required to include plans for measurably improving school climate as part of the annual Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). (You can find it in "priority 6" of your district's LCAP.) The California Department of Education recommends a school climate survey as a model practice.

School climate surveys can help leaders inspire change by giving visibility to issues that matter to faculty, parents and students. Under the right conditions, these surveys can spark discussions that lead to insights and action. In order for surveys to perform this function usefully, however, they must be consistent and they must be used. Someone with credibility in the school community has to assemble the data and inspire people to take the time to look. Results must be delivered promptly in ways that are clear and relevant, or they will simply be ignored. This is hard to do.

In California, the most widely-used survey that relates to school climate is the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS), a component of the broader California School Climate, Health, and Learning Surveys (CSCHLS). Many California districts have some experience with these surveys because they were briefly supported by federal Title IV funding in the 2008-09 school year. When this source of funding dried up, the survey became one of the many things that school districts can decide to invest in (or not) as part of the funds they receive under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Lessons learned from California's grant to improve school climate offer insight for school districts going forward.

California school districts are obligated to include information about school climate as part of their Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). The Healthy Kids (CHKS) and School Climate (CSCS) surveys provide an obvious mechanism to deliver on that requirement, so some school districts continue to use the Healthy Kids Survey or alternatives based on it.

Students have a lot to say about their schools. Ironically, the California School Climate Survey does not include a model for collecting feedback from them. There are alternatives. For example, the National School Climate Center provides surveys that include students. Ed100 Lesson 2.10 explores practical approaches.

Not a mandate, just a suggestion

A 2018 report by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids found that the state's guidance about school climate surveys is often ignored. The state of California doesn't check, and has no mechanism to collect information from school climate surveys that are conducted. Why? Because doing so would constitute a state mandate — and state mandates have to be state funded. More about state mandates in Lesson 7.3.

In 2016, related changes in Federal policy prompted the California State Board of Education to incorporate a measure of school climate into a new statewide school accountability system. After much debate, the rate of chronic absence is now included as an element of the state's accountability system to evaluate schools and districts.

School uniforms

Education reform's popular focuses can change over time. For example, in the '90s, the subject of debate was school uniforms. Many private schools have long required pupils to wear uniforms. In the early 1990s, California’s Long Beach Unified became America’s first public school district to require uniforms for its students. The students’ strong improvement in academic performance drew national attention. While some were in favor of such policies because uniforms create a visible shared identity among schoolmates, and reduce the visibility of wealth differences, others argued that they presented too great a cost to personal expression. As of 2017-18, about a fifth of public school districts required uniforms, Long Beach still among them.

In part, uniforms are a strategy to reduce bullying. They also can play a role in reducing gang identification in schools. California law permits schools to establish uniforms, but requires schools to help economically disadvantaged students pay for them.

Did this great debate offer a magic solution to urban school improvement? Of course not. There is no automatic correlation between uniforms and learning. Implementing uniforms can create a sudden and visible change in a school environment, but it is up to the school’s leaders and faculty to create the less visible changes that drive student learning. Arguments and claims on all sides are summarized here by Public School Review and discussed more extensively by Greatschools.org.

The next lesson explores one of the major recurring themes of school reform: small schools.

Updated July 2017
December 2018
April 2019
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August 2021
December 2021
November 2022

Quiz

Are school districts in California expected to conduct a survey of school climate?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 27, 2021 at 10:10 pm
As the Pandemic hit 2020 an important multi-year report was released about the role of schools as places for mental wellness, with policy recommendations. The timing was unlucky, and it was ignored. Read it here: Every Young Heart and Mind
user avatar
Jeff Camp February 14, 2017 at 9:57 pm
Los Angeles Unified collected student survey data about bullying, summarized by the LA Times. Not encouraging.
user avatar
Jeff Camp December 16, 2016 at 4:23 pm
Does it help a school keep order if there are police present? Probably not, research suggests: http://data.huffingtonpost.com/2016/school-police/nasro
user avatar
sfritts9 April 29, 2015 at 5:43 am
By having uniforms in the school will take one less "conversation" from the kids on bullying others. Back in the Midwest we had uniforms in elementary private and public schools.
user avatar
Tara Massengill April 20, 2015 at 2:31 pm
I agree that uniforms would lower bullying incidents. Some kids can be really focused on whether or not other have the "right" kind/brand of clothing.
user avatar
irma.i.brito April 16, 2015 at 12:15 pm
I love the idea of uniforms. Shows Unity and it's a great way to lower bullying incidents
user avatar
Robert Crowell May 4, 2018 at 9:13 am
Totally agree. Uniforms are also generally less expensive than "designer" clothes.
user avatar
trckrnnr April 2, 2015 at 12:53 pm
As a teacher in high school I would support uniforms. The way the young girls dress is inappropriate, and I will not let any girl in a dress or shorts sit in the front row. That's for my protection as a teacher.
user avatar
Mamabear March 20, 2015 at 4:55 pm
I am a proponent of school uniforms, having lived in Long Beach and seen firsthand that it works for public school children. There are other more pressing issues, but wanted to show support for the content in this lesson.
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