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School Climate

Summary and Keywords

School violence, drug use, bullying, theft, and vandalism are costly and interfere with academic achievement. Beyond the cost of personal injury and property damage and loss, school crime is costly because it interferes with academic achievement and reduces the ability of schools to carry out their educational mission. Fear of victimization influences students’ attendance, such that students are more likely to avoid school activities or places, or even school itself, due to fear of attack or harm. Teachers in disorderly schools also spend a large proportion of their time coping with behavior problems rather than instructing students, resulting in lower levels of student academic engagement, academic performance, and eventually graduation rates. Student misbehavior is also one of the primary sources of teacher turnover in schools.

Responses to school crime have become increasingly formal since the 1990s, with greater recourse to arrest and a turn toward juvenile courts rather than school-based discipline, furthered by zero-tolerance policies and increased hiring of uniformed officers to police the schools. The shift has been from administrative discretion to mandatory penalties and from in-school discipline to increasing use of suspension or arrest. At the same time, there has been a considerable investment in the use of surveillance cameras and metal detectors. There is no evidence to suggest that this tightening of school discipline has reduced school crime.

By contrast, considerable evidence supports the effectiveness of alternative strategies designed to prevent youth crime and delinquency. Several school-based programs targeting student factors such as self-control, social competency, and attachment to school have been demonstrated in rigorous research to be effective for reducing crime and delinquency. In addition, several aspects of the way schools are organized and managed influence crime and disorder.

The term “school climate” encompasses several school characteristics that influence crime and disorder. Evidence supports the importance of the discipline management of a school, including both the fairness and consistency of rules and rule enforcement as well as the clarification and communication of behavioral norms in reducing crime and disorder in schools. The social climate within the school, specifically the existence of a positive and communal climate among all members of the school community, is also important. Research demonstrates that is possible to manipulate these aspects of school climate. Rigorous research shows that efforts to increase clarity and consistency of rule enforcement and to clarify norms for behavior are effective for reducing crime and disorder. More research is needed to test a fully comprehensive intervention aimed at creating a more communal social climate, but preliminary studies suggest positive effects.

Several challenges to creating more positive school climates are discussed, and possible solutions are suggested.

Keywords: school climate, school discipline, juvenile delinquency, school disorder, youth victimization

Prevalence and Costs of School Crime1

Although schools should be sanctuaries against criminal victimization, the truth is otherwise. Youths are required by law to attend school until their late teens, but that requirement does not come with any assurance that they will be safe. In fact, students report as much or more victimization at school than away from school, despite spending many fewer waking hours in school. The important exception is for the most serious violent crime: murder. Here the relative risks are decidedly reversed; only about 1 percent of murders of school-aged youths occur on school grounds. But lesser crimes—for example, the fights and strong-arm robberies and larcenies—are common enough to have an important effect on the school experience for many students (Cook, Gottfredson, & Chongmin, 2010).

Indeed, despite declines in school-related deaths, violent victimizations, and overall school crime during the past two decades, crime and victimization in schools are still a cause for concern. During the 2013–2014 school year, 65% of public schools recorded one or more violent incidents, and 13% recorded one or more serious violent incidents. During this same year, 16% of public schools reported that bullying occurred among students at least once per week (Musu-Gillette, Zhang, Wang, Zhang, & Oudekerk, 2017). During the 2009–2010 school year, 44% of public schools recorded one or more thefts, and 39% of public schools took at least one serious disciplinary action against a student; of these, 74% were suspensions, 20% were transfers, and 6% were removals with no services provided (Robers, Zhang, Morgan, & Musu-Gillette, 2015).

Surveys of students and teachers also indicate the continual presence of crime and disorder. In 2015, 21 out of every 1,000 students experienced violent victimizations at school, compared with 11 out of every 1,000 students away from school. During that same year, 8% of students in grades 9 through 12 reported being in a physical fight at school, 6% reported being threatened or injured with a weapon such as a gun or knife at school, and 4% reported carrying a weapon to school. During 2015, 21% of students reported being bullied at school, with 33% of bullying victims reporting being bullied at least once or twice a month. Similarly, throughout the 2011–2012 school year, 9% of schoolteachers reported being threatened with injury by a student, and 5% reported actually being physically attacked by a student (Musu-Gillette, Zhang, Wang, Zhang, & Oudekerk, 2017).

Beyond the cost of personal injury and property damage and loss, school crime is costly because it interferes with academic achievement and reduces the ability of schools to carry out their educational mission. Fear of victimization influences students’ attendance, such that students are more likely to avoid school activities or places, or even school itself, due to fear of attack or harm (Hutzell & Payne, 2017). Teachers in disorderly schools also spend a disproportionate amount of their time coping with behavior problems rather than instructing students, resulting in lower levels of student academic engagement, academic performance, and eventually graduation rates. Indeed, during the 2011–2012 school year, 38% of teachers agreed or strongly agreed that student misbehavior interfered with their ability to teach (Musu-Gillette, Zhang, Wang, Zhang, & Oudekerk, 2017); not surprisingly, student misbehavior is one of the primary sources of teacher turnover in our nation’s schools.

Current Responses to School Crime

It is not surprising, therefore, that reducing crime has become an increasingly high priority for America’s schools. In response to these concerns, modern urban public schools continue to be guided by a crime control model embraced in part as a response to highly visible instances of student violence. Schools are increasingly adopting restrictive security measures; this “school prisonization” is manifested in myriad ways (Welch & Payne, 2014), including surveillance and security measures such as detectors to keep weapons off school grounds and locked or monitored doors and gates to stop both unauthorized individuals from coming on campus and students from leaving. Additionally, many schools have implemented policies requiring student identification badges and uniforms or dress codes. Hallways are generally supervised by school staff and administrators, and many schools hire uniformed security guards or law enforcement officers to carry out this task. Many schools also install security cameras, perform regular locker searches, require students to carry clear book bags, and use drug-sniffing dogs to facilitate enhanced monitoring of student behavior.

In addition to the tightening of school security, the intensification of student disciplinary policy has led to the trend of criminalizing students. Student discipline in American schools has grown increasingly severe, as evidenced by greater use of exclusionary punishments such as expulsion, suspension, and in-school suspension, as well as the implementation of strictly enforced zero tolerance policies (Welch & Payne, 2014). Moreover, students found in violation of rules are frequently punished in a manner that is somewhat analogous to the treatment of criminals by the criminal justice system. A clear example of this is how the actions of school troublemakers are often described with criminal justice language: Students, sometimes called “suspects” or “repeat offenders,” are subjected to “investigations,” “interrogations,” and “searches” by dogs or School Resource Officers (SROs) who will sometimes report “needing back-up.” Students may then be involved in “line-ups” and school “courts” before being punished by detentions, suspensions, and expulsions, which can be likened to the banishment of incarceration or execution, albeit only until those students relocate to a different school or school system. In addition, zero tolerance policies operate much like mandatory-minimum criminal sentencing statutes that offer no forgiveness after predetermined violations. Further, delinquency that occurs on school grounds is now more often referred to formal law enforcement rather than being addressed internally. A consequence of these changes in student discipline is that schools are becoming less inclined to create a positive educational environment, thus becoming more like prisons in that their populations are subject to risk assessment, surveillance, and punishment that produces an adverse environment (Welch & Payne, 2014).

While the increasing formality in school response to crime has coincided with declining crime rates, there is no clear indication of whether the new approach gets any of the credit. Indeed, the evaluation literature has little to say about the likely effects of these changes. As so often happens, there appears to be a disconnect between policy and research (Gottfredson, Cook, & Na, 2014). Although it is challenging to disentangle consequences of punitive discipline from the preexisting characteristics of the punished youth, there is a good chance that these punitive techniques are having a negative effect on students. Students who experience punitive discipline are more likely to perform poorly in school, experience grade retention, have negative attitudes toward schools, and may be more likely to drop out (Skiba & Rausch, 2006; Gardella, 2015). Their graduation rates are lower and subsequent professional opportunities are limited (Lasnover, 2015; Vincent & Tobin, 2011). These students are also more likely to engage in physical fighting, weapon carrying, smoking, alcohol and drug use, and other delinquent acts both in school and in the greater community. And ultimately they are more likely to end up in the school-to-prison pipeline and eventually experience punishment by the juvenile and/or criminal justice system (Welch & Payne, 2014).

Alternative Responses

As attention to school safety has increased, research has highlighted a variety of school-related factors that could be manipulated in efforts to reduce school crime and disorder that are in direct contrast to restrictive security measures and punitive disciplinary responses. Certainly schools provide an excellent location for a variety of strategies designed to prevent youth crime and delinquency and there are scores of school-based programs targeting student factors such as self-control, social competency, attachment to school that have been demonstrated in rigorous research to be effective (see, e.g., University of Colorado’s Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development).

In addition, research has documented an association between aspects of a school’s organization and crime and delinquency. The historical development of interest in school effects can be traced back at least as far as the 1950s litigation concerning unequal education for black and white students in U.S. schools (culminating in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling). This ruling led to unprecedented “white flight” from city schools, which spurred interest in learning more about the effects of unequal schooling. An extensive body of “school effects” research generated following these events (e.g., Purkey & Smith, 1983) investigated what features of the school environment would be important for influencing students’ outcomes. Media coverage of the plight of inner-city schools around this time was also extensive, emphasizing their general deterioration and safety problems. The American Federation of Teachers was concerned about teacher safety. In response to these pressures, the U.S. Congress held a series of hearings in 1975 and 1976 about school disorder and commissioned a Safe School Study (SSS) to learn more about school safety issues. This major study became the first large-scale study of school climate and delinquency. This major investment in understanding how schools contribute to delinquency dramatically increased our understanding of the characteristics of schools related to crime and victimization. In a reanalysis of data from the SSS, Gottfredson and Gottfredson (1985) showed that even after controlling for input characteristics of students and communities in which schools were located, characteristics of schools accounted for an additional 12% (junior high) and 18% (senior high) of variance in teacher victimization rates. More recent national studies have replicated these findings and extended them to show that school characteristics account for a substantial amount of variance not only in teacher victimization but also in student reports of victimization and delinquency (Gottfredson, Gottfredson, Payne, & Gottfredson, 2005).

Several aspects of the way schools are organized and managed influence crime and disorder. Cook et al. (2010) discuss school system decisions that influence the demographic composition of schools and the number and types of other students to whom a child is exposed. Schools and school districts have a good deal of control over the makeup of the student body, based on neighborhood residential patterns, grade span, and truancy and dropout programs. Similarly, students who are enrolled in the school can be tracked on the basis of academic potential or mixed together. These decisions influence the characteristics of other students to whom youths will be exposed. Importantly, these decisions determine the pool of youths from which highly influential peers will be selected as well as the dominant peer culture in the school. School and school district decisions about curricular content and teaching methods are also important. These decisions determine student success in school and decisions to persist in school.

In this entry, we discuss another school characteristic that influences crime and disorder: school climate. Specifically, we discuss the discipline management of a school, including both the fairness and consistency of rules and rule enforcement as well as the clarification and communication of behavioral norms, as well as the social climate within the school, specifically the existence of a positive and communal climate among all members of the school community.

Discipline Management

Rules and Rule Enforcement

In contrast to the punitive nature of the discipline used by many schools, research shows that fairness of rules and consistency of rule enforcement are far more important. When students perceive that school rules are fair and consistently enforced, schools experience lower levels of problem behavior. Inclusion of students in establishing school rules and policies for dealing with problem behaviors has also been found to be related to lower levels of problem behavior, most likely because students are likely to internalize school rules if they have helped to shape them. On the other hand, severity of sanctions is not related to a reduction in problem behaviors. These findings conform to the main findings from deterrence research that the certainty of punishment has greater deterrent effect than the severity of punishment (Gottfredson et al., 2014).

Evaluations of school-based programs designed to increase rule clarity and fairness of rule enforcement confirm this relationship. One particularly effective behavioral intervention is the “Good Behavior Game” (GBG: Dolan et al., 1993; Kellam, Rebok, Ialongo, & Mayer, 1994; Poduska et al., 2008), a classroom-based application of behavioral principles in which elementary school children are divided into small teams, and the teams are rewarded when the classroom behavior of the entire team meets or exceeds a preestablished, clearly stated standard. The GBG is played several times per week throughout the school year. The intervention was evaluated through a randomized trial involving 19 schools in Baltimore City, with posttests conducted immediately following the intervention as well as six and 14 years later. The results of this study indicate that participation in GBG is related to immediate reductions in aggressive behavior, rates of diagnosed antisocial personality disorder, and long-term effects (14 years later) on drug and alcohol use and smoking (Gottfredson et al., 2014).

Another example of a contemporary approach to discipline management which incorporates behavioral principles into comprehensive systems that include school-wide discipline policies and practices as well as targeted behavioral interventions is School-Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS). SWPBS is designed to create a school community focused on respect, responsibility, and safety and encourages each student to make behavioral choices that will ensure their success. A SWPBS planning team is created, containing administrators, faculty, and students; this team develops behavior expectations in the form of a matrix showing what is expected in terms of place and focus (respect, responsibility, safety). This matrix is taught, using cognitive-behavioral delivery methods, to all members of the school community, in order to create a culture of consistency and predictability. In addition, posters are hung that highlight behavior expectations for all areas of the school, in order to remind students of what is expected from them in each area. Appropriate behavior is acknowledged and rewarded; and when there are behavior infractions, predictable consequences occur. These are not primarily punitive but rather opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes and accept responsibility for choices (Payne, 2015).

A recent randomized controlled trial testing the effect of SWPBS on school climate and youth problem behavior in 37 elementary schools found that the program increased “organizational health” (e.g., teacher reports of warm and friendly interactions, positive feelings about colleagues, and commitment to students; Bradshaw, Koth, Thornton, & Leaf, 2009), teacher reports of children’s behavior problems, concentration problems, social-emotional functioning, and prosocial behavior (Bradshaw, Waasdorp, & Leaf, 2012), and teacher reports of bullying and peer rejection (Waasdorp, Bradshaw, & Leaf, 2012). A rigorous study of effects of PBIS on secondary students’ behavior is ongoing.

Behavioral Norms

A second aspect of discipline management, related to clarity and consistency of rules rule enforcement, is the clarification and communication of behavioral norms, or expectations of behavior. The communication of clear behavioral norms in a school is associated with lower rates of crime and victimization (Payne, 2017), as norms and behavioral expectations, both peers and adult, have been shown to be powerful determinants of youth behavior (Gottfredson et al., 2014). Several effective school-based programs focus on clarifying expectations for behavior. Some signal appropriate behavior through media campaigns or ceremonies, others involve youths in activities aimed at clarifying misperceptions about normative behavior, and still others increase exposure to pro-social models and messages. Two of the better-known examples of programs in this category are the Safe Dates Program (Foshee et al., 1996; Foshee, Bauman, Arriaga, Helms, Koch, & Linder, 1998) and the Bullying Prevention Program (Olweus, Limber, & Mihalic, 1999).

The Safe Dates Program targets norms for dating violence among adolescents. The school portion of the intervention includes a theater production performed by peers; a 10-session curriculum addressing dating violence norms, gender stereotyping, and conflict management skills; and a poster contest. The community portion of the intervention includes services for adolescents experiencing abuse and training for community service providers. Foshee et al. (1998) found that students in intervention schools reported less psychological abuse and violence against dating partners than did students in control schools.

Olweus’s anti-bullying program includes school-wide, classroom, and individual components, with the main focus on altering norms regarding bullying by redefining bullying as wrong in all situations (Payne, 2017). School-wide components include increased adult supervision at bullying “hot spots” and school-wide discussions of exactly what bullying is and how all school members should respond to bullying incidents. Classroom components focus on developing and enforcing rules against bullying. Individual counseling is also provided to children identified as bullies and victims. A large-scale evaluation of this program in Norwegian schools demonstrated that it led to reductions in student bullying and victimization and decreases in the incidence of vandalism, fighting, and theft (Olweus et al., 1999). A recent review of anti-bullying programs summarizing results from studies conducted between 1983 and 2008 (Farrington & Ttofi, 2009) confirmed that anti-bullying programs are effective for reducing bullying and student victimization, and that Olweus’s program is particularly effective (Gottfredson et al., 2014).

Although these two sample programs address specific problem behaviors (dating violence and bullying), a systematic review of programs targeting a wide range of behaviors confirms that interventions aimed at establishing norms or expectations for behavior can be effective in preventing substance use, delinquency, aggression, and other problem behaviors as well (Gottfredson et al., 2002).

Communal School Organization

A second aspect of school organization that has been studied extensively pertains to the affective bonds between students and teachers and among adults in the school. The importance of school social climate has been recognized for over a century; as researchers in the 1950s examined the effectiveness of various school practices and environments, systematic scientific study of school climate grew and contributed to the recognition of schools as a primary agent of socialization. Through this research, it appears that a positive and communal school climate—one characterized by supportive and collaborative relationships among school community members and a common sense of goals and norms—can improve a school’s safety and foster a school’s success (Payne, 2017).

The concept of “communal social organization” (CSO) was first introduced as part of the effective schools debate in the 1980s (e.g., Firestone & Rosenblum, 1988; Purkey & Smith, 1983) and studied by Bryk and colleagues (Bryk & Driscoll, 1989) mostly in the context of predictors of school achievement. Communally organized schools are schools in which “members know, care about, and support one another, have common goals and sense of shared purpose, and . . . actively contribute and feel personally committed” (Solomon, Battistich, Kim, & Watson, 1997). A strong body of work has illustrated many beneficial outcomes of a positive and communal school climate for all members of the school community (Payne, 2017). Students in schools with a positive and communal climate display lower levels of absenteeism and truancy, and drop-out rates are lower. They are less likely to be victimized and are less afraid to attend school. These students also demonstrate lower levels of substance use and aggression and are subjected to fewer suspensions and expulsions. Finally, students in communally organized schools engage in fewer acts of deviance, delinquency, crime, and violence. Indeed, a review of 25 studies examining the impact of school climate on measures of these behaviors (including thefts, threats, physical violence, delinquency, bullying, and weapon carrying as well as perceptions of school safety) determined that schools with less problem behavior tend to have students who are aware of school rules and believe they are fair, have positive relationships with their teachers, feel that they have ownership in their school and that they are in a positive learning-focused classroom and school environment, and in an orderly environment (Johnson, 2009). In addition, teachers in a school with a positive and communal climate experience lower levels of absenteeism, turnover, and victimization (Payne, 2017). Ultimately, the climate of a school affects its ability to regulate students’ behaviors, such that school crime and disorder will be lower when the climate is “more socially cohesive and has a shared sense of values and beliefs” (Zaykowski & Gunter, 2012, p. 435).

Importantly, the influence of school climate on student crime is not entirely direct. Research has demonstrated, for example, that school climate can moderate the relationship between school crime and school composition, such that a positive and communal school climate has a stronger impact on delinquency and victimization in schools with a greater proportion of racial and ethnic minority students (Payne, 2012). Also, Payne (2008) demonstrated that the relationship between an individual’s level of social bonding and delinquency is influenced by CSO. Specifically, Payne found that feeling less attached to teachers and school increased delinquency less in schools that are more communally organized than in those that are not. Payne also found that giving legitimacy to school rules and norms decreases delinquency less in schools that are more communally organized than in those that are not. These results suggest that when the school community is strong, individual behavior is less reliant on students’ own personal controls than when school community is weak.

Hirschi’s (1969) social control theory provides a link between a positive and communal social climate and school disorder: Students in a communally organized school appear to be more bonded to the school. The supportive relationships and common norms and goals found in schools with positive and communal climates theoretically increase the likelihood that students will become more bonded to their school, and thus less likely to misbehave (Welch & Payne, 2014). As the members of the school create a community, the climate becomes warmer and more inclusive. The students’ feelings of belonging and attachment then increase, as does their school commitment and their levels of belief in and internalization of school norms and values. They feel as though they belong to the school, as though they are valued and accepted, and are less likely to engage in crime and delinquency (Welch & Payne, 2014). This suggests that strategies that increase social bonds between students and others in their schools will reduce misbehavior by increasing informal controls. Students who care what adults in the school think about them will be less likely to act in ways that jeopardize their positive regard.

But how can such bonds be built or maintained? Possibilities include organizing the school so that the typical teacher interacts with fewer students, reducing class size, and creating more “communal” social environments in which members are more tightly joined together by common goals and in which members are held in place by the support and positive regard of others in the organization. Unfortunately, relative to research on interventions aimed at altering school discipline practices and norms for behavior, research on efforts to build communal social organizations in schools has lagged behind. A very early evaluation of an effort to create more “holistic” secondary school environments in Charleston, South Carolina provided promising results. Project PATHE (Positive Action Through Holistic Education) aimed to increase the clarity of school rules and consistency of rule enforcement and to increase students’ success experiences and feelings of belonging in the school. It contained components targeting each of the elements of CSO as described earlier. Students, teachers, and staff worked together on teams to revise discipline policies for the school and to communicate expectations for behavior to the entire school community. Students worked together to organize extracurricular activities selected by the students, and they planned and implemented “school pride” campaigns involving a variety of activities aimed at building a cohesive school community. The intervention (described in greater detail in Gottfredson, 1986) was complex and multifaceted, aiming to transform the school environment in ways consistent with the research on CSO specifically and school climate more generally. The evaluation showed that students in the intervention schools reported less alienation and greater attachment to school as well as less delinquent behavior and drug use and fewer punishments in school relative to the students in the comparison schools (Gottfredson, 1986). This early research, although based on a relatively small number of schools and lacking randomization to condition, showed that CSO can be manipulated in a comprehensive way, and suggested that beneficial outcomes result from such efforts.

More contemporary evidence suggests that reorganizing schools to create a smaller feel to the schooling experience can be an effective strategy for increasing youths’ sense of connection, and that enhanced connectedness should hold criminal behavior in check (Cook et al., 2010). A less drastic intervention with the same objectives is mentoring. Youth mentoring programs often target youths at risk of behavioral problems, assigning them to an adult mentor who spends time with the young person, provides support and guidance, and provides general guidance. A recent meta-analysis of such programs (Tolan et al., 2014) reported positive and significant effects on a range of outcomes including academic achievement, aggression, and drug use with effect sizes ranging from .11 to .29.

One of the better-known models for adult mentoring, the Big Brothers-Big Sisters program (BBBS) is a community-based program that was evaluated in a large-scale randomized trial. The study found that mentored youths were 46% less likely than control youth to initiate drug use, 27% less likely to initiate alcohol use, and almost one-third less likely to hit someone during the study period (Tierney, 1995). Community-based mentoring involves meetings between the mentor and mentee at times and places selected by the pair. Many schools provide “school based mentoring,” (SBM) which involves meetings primarily in school during the school day. A more recent evaluation of the BBBS SBM model, also involving random assignment of a large number of youths, shows that although it is not as effective as the community-based alternative, SBM does improve academic performance, reduce truancy, and reduce serious school infractions (Herrera, Grossman, Kauh, Feldman, McMaken, & Jucovy, 2007) at least during the first year of mentoring. Consistent with results from smaller-scale randomized trials of SBM showing positive effects on increasing connectedness to school (Karcher, 2005) and perceived social support (Karcher, 2008), Herrera et al. (2007) found that mentored youths reported more often than controls the presence of a non-parental adult in their life who provides social supports. At the end of the second year of the study during which minimal SBM was provided, the positive program effect on truancy was sustained but the other positive effects were not. Herrera et al. (2007) conclude that although the SBM model is promising, it needs to be strengthened to ensure longer and higher quality mentor/mentee matches than are typically found in schools.

The Gap Between School Climate Research and Policy

Interest in school climate is high at present as indicated by recent federal initiatives reflecting the importance of school climate for positive youth development. For example, in the foreword to a report on school climate and discipline, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan set forth three guiding principles for school improvement, the first of which was for schools to “take deliberate steps to create the positive school climates that can help prevent and change inappropriate behaviors” (U.S. DoE, 2014, p. ii). In addition, the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Supportive Schools supports the development of statewide school climate assessment systems and the evaluation of school climate improvement processes. Schools funded by this project must use program resources to implement and maintain strategies intended to improve school safety and promote students’ well-being, in part by ensuring a healthy and supportive school climate (U.S. DoE, 2010). Similarly, the Safe and Drug Free Schools Division of the U.S. Department of Education allocated over 155 million dollars for the development of statewide school climate assessment and improvement systems to support schools in the creation and maintenance of communal and positive school climates (Cohen, 2013).

Although this policy interest is refreshing, there is unfortunately a large gap between the empirical research findings surrounding the benefits of such a climate and the policies and practices aimed at school climate improvement. This gap between research and practice, stems from several problems, attention to which would strengthen current efforts to encourage positive school climates. These problems include the absence of an agreed-upon definition of school climate, confusion on how to best assess school climate, and a lack of strong climate facilitation leadership at the state, district, and school levels (Payne, 2017).

Defining School Climate

One major reason for the translation gap is a lack of national consensus regarding what exactly constitutes school climate (NSCC, 2007). Researchers define school climate in numerous ways and continue to debate the key components of a positive and communal school climate. A recent scan of state-level school climate policy statements showed that 36 states provided definitions that were clearly lacking in specificity and purpose, likely due to the perplexingly large span of definitions that abound in empirical work (Cohen, McCabe, Michelli, & Pickeral, 2009).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has defined a positive school climate as one with “caring and supportive interpersonal relationships; opportunities to participate in school activities and decision-making; and shared positive norms, goals, and values” (CDC, 2009, p. 7), while the U.S. Department of Education refers to school climate as the “extent to which a school community creates and maintains a safe school campus; a supportive academic, disciplinary, and physical environment; and respectful, trusting, and caring relationships throughout the school community” (U.S. DoE, 2014, p. 5). Others have defined school climate as “the quality and character of school life, including norms, values and expectations” which “in turn, create an environment that dictates whether the staff, students and parents feel safe (emotionally, socially, physically), welcome and respected” (Aldridge & Ala’l, 2013, p. 47) and the “quality and character of school life” which “involves social, emotional, and academic experiences of students, family members, and school personnel” that “can be summarized as the collective beliefs, values, and attitudes that prevail at school” (Wang et al., 2014, p. 361).

When examining specific dimensions of school climate, perhaps most important are the relationships among all members of the school community: “If there is a common thread to creating a positive school climate, it is the importance of relationships—student to student, teacher to student, teacher to family, administrator to staff, school to community. Perhaps it is simplistic to conclude that something as inherently comprehensive and complex as school climate boils down to such subjective considerations as people and relationships, but that may be closest to the truth” (Noonan, 2004, p. 56). After a decades-long study of Chicago schools, Bryk and his colleagues conclude that trusting relationships are the “glue” that binds effective school climate (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Easton, & Luppescu, 2010).

In addition to relationships, many of the definitions make reference to the interactions between school community members, which are, of course, dictated in part by the relationships in the school. Interactions among students, between students and school personnel, among school personnel, and between the school, families, and the larger community are all important to consider. The nature of these interactions are shaped by the shared beliefs, values, and attitudes held by the members of the school community; it is these interactions, in turn, that “set the parameters of acceptable behavior and norms for the school” (Koth, Bradshaw, & Leaf, 2008, p. 96). Thus, a set of common norms and goals are also an integral element of a positive and communal school climate (Payne et al., 2003; Payne, 2008).

Some researchers have provided a more in-depth discussion regarding what constitutes school climate. The National School Climate Council (NSCC), a group of educational practice and policy leaders and researchers, states that “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” (NSCC, 2007, p. 4). The NSCC continues by identifying what they consider to be the four essential spheres of focus: safety, relationships, teaching and learning, and the institutional environment (Cohen & Geier, 2010). Safety refers to rules and norms, and concerns physical as well as socio-emotional safety, while relationships cover respect for diversity as well as student and adult social support. Teaching and learning include social, emotional, and civic learning, support for learning, and professional relationships found in the school. Finally, institutional environment deals with actual physical surroundings.

Others present a narrower definition, however, arguing that perceptions of safety and the culture surrounding teaching and learning are outcomes rather than components of school climate. Payne et al. (2003)and Payne (2008) define a positive and communal school climate as one with supportive relationships among all school community members, a common set of goals and norms, and a sense of collaboration and involvement. Such a climate has a strong sense of community, in which members care about and support one another; these members actively contribute to the school and feel personally committed to its mission, goals, and norms. This, in turn, leads to more positive perceptions of safety, a greater sense of belonging, and a stronger focus on teaching and learning by all school community members, which then leads to less school crime (Payne et al., 2003; Payne, 2008).

Although there is no national consensus surrounding the definition, most consider school climate to be a “group phenomenon that is larger than any one person’s experience” (Cohen et al., 2009, p. 182), incorporating the relationships in the school and the goals, norms, and values of the school community and is the sum of all school community members’ experiences. This understanding, however, is not enough. Without a clear definition that fully articulates exactly what constitutes school climate, and what the important elements to consider are, school leaders are left without a roadmap for school climate reform and the translation gap continues to widen.

Assessing School Climate

The second problem that contributes to the gap between school climate research and policy stems from this definition issue: Because there is a lack of consensus on a clear definition of school climate, there is also a lack of consensus on how it can best be assessed. Although there is a clear need for comprehensive and sound school climate measurement to inform choices made by school leaders, the current state of assessment is lacking. Now that recent federal initiatives recognize the importance of both school climate and proper needs assessment data as a guide for school climate improvement (U.S. DoE, 2010), these limitations must be addressed.

An essential aspect of needs assessment is the use of psychometrically sound instruments, requiring a measurement tool that is both highly reliable and valid. Unfortunately, many of the surveys used to assess school climate have not been tested for these metrics, and those that have been tested for reliability and validity have frequently come up short (Cohen, 2014; Ramelow, Currie, & Felder-Puig, 2015). Indeed, Cohen (2013) concluded that only three of 102 school climate measures met the American Psychological Association’s reliability and validity standards. Furthermore, even when reliable and valid measurement tools are available, many schools use homemade surveys because other instruments are too long or too costly (Bear, Yang, & Pasipanodya, 2015). Using unreliable and invalid tools can lead to inaccurate and useless information; such tools also waste time and money and ultimately harm the school climate reform process.

In addition to being psychometrically unsound, the majority of measurement tools do not accurately account for the multidimensional nature of school climate (Bear et al., 2015; Ramelow et al., 2015). Researchers have suggested multiple elements of school climate, including relationships, rules and norms, teaching and learning, and the physical surroundings. However, few instruments assess more than one of these dimensions at a time, let alone all of them (Klein et al., 2012). Most studies focus on one specific element, such as relationships or rules and norms, despite clear evidence that school climate is multifaceted and that the different facets are correlated. Failing to comprehensively assess all dimensions of school climate results in inaccurate findings that undoubtedly exaggerate the magnitude of effects for the dimensions that are measured because they fail to control for the effects of the unmeasured but correlated dimensions. Also, such studies ignore the holistic nature of the school climate concept.

Many school climate assessments also fall short when they fail to measure school climate at the appropriate level of analysis. Although definitions of school climate differ, all agree that it is a group rather than an individual-level phenomenon. Unfortunately, many studies assess school climate at the individual level (Wang et al., 2014). But individual-level reports of school climate capture both a within-school component (the difference between the individual score and the school mean) and a between-school component (the difference between the school mean and the grand mean). Although the study of variation in individual perceptions of the school may be of interest in some investigations, it is largely irrelevant to the study of school climate. Characteristics of schools can only be studied by analyzing between-school variation. Hence, studies involving only a small number of schools, and studies that focus on individual differences in perceptions of school climate rather than on the school-level phenomenon, are not really assessing school climate. School climate must be studied either at the school level or in a multilevel hierarchical framework (Payne, 2008; Ramelow et al., 2015).

Similarly, school climate assessments often do not incorporate the many different school community members, including students, teachers, administrators, additional staff, parents, and members of the greater community (Bear et al., 2015). This is problematic for two reasons. First, there is not always consensus surrounding the nature of a school’s climate; that is, discrepant perceptions of school climate do occur between groups in a school, such as teachers and students (Mitchell, Bradshaw, & Leaf, 2010; Mitchell & Bradshaw, 2013). In addition, if studies rely on data from only one group of respondents, the results may suffer from shared method variance, in which the relationship between these measures is inflated simply as a result of coming from the same individual (Klein, Cornell, & Konold, 2012). Thus, it is important for data to be collected from different sources—from all members of the school community—to ensure that a variety of perspectives are attained, allowing for a comprehensive assessment to be conducted.

Given the recent call by a series of federal initiatives to evaluate and improve school climate, (U.S. DoE, 2010; U.S. DoE, 2014), it is vital that it is assessed using reliable and valid instruments that capture all dimensions of school climate and recognize the voices of all school community members. Though a few promising measurement instruments have been developed, such as the Comprehensive School Climate Inventory (Wang et al., 2013), more work is needed. Additionally, climate should always be analyzed at the school level or within a multilevel model that takes into account the nested nature of schools, classrooms, and individuals. Results from such assessments can provide useful and accurate data to inform the school improvement process.

Facilitating School Climate

Another factor in the translation gap is a lack of school climate leadership at all levels in the facilitation of a positive and communal school climate. While there is little research on effective facilitation, some general paths can be suggested. Having strong state policy leaders who understand the importance of school climate seems essential for state-level education policies and practices to be effectively developed and implemented. These leaders should ensure that a focus on school climate is a fundamental part of the school improvement process (NSCC, 2007). In order to best integrate the solid body of empirical research into this process, state policymakers should avail themselves of the resources that could be provided to them by academic and research institutions (Cohen et al., 2009). By relying on school climate experts, policymakers can develop successful improvement plans despite the maze of school climate definitions and assessment tools. Leadership at the district level would also be important to facilitate facilitating a positive and communal school climate. These leaders should conduct a systematic review of all district policies, procedures, and activities to ensure these elements are supportive of such a climate (Pickeral, Evans, Hughes, & Hutchison, 2009).

Similarly, school climate facilitation efforts rarely have strong leadership at the school level. These endeavors are often narrowly isolated, with attention given to concerns of student health or school safety only, rather than holistically implemented into schoolwide changes sounding school community relationships, norms, and beliefs (NSCC, 2007). However, evaluation research clearly shows that the most effective reforms are (1) incorporated into every facet of the school—curricular choices, extracurricular activities, rules and policies, even the school’s goals and ultimate mission—and (2) include leadership from the entire school community—students, teachers, administrators, families, and the larger community—in facilitating a positive and communal school climate (Cohen, 2013; Cohen & Geier, 2010).

Students should be full participants in this process, as they are the ultimate beneficiaries of a positive and communal school climate. Allowing students to be co-leaders in the facilitation process gives them opportunities to practice leadership skills and to have their voices heard (Cohen, 2013). This could ultimately lead students to become more connected to the school community and thus less likely to engage in delinquent behaviors (Payne, 2008).

A school’s faculty is just as essential to this process. As teachers work to create and sustain a positive and communal climate, both in their individual classrooms and in the school overall, they can directly affect their students’ behavior. Therefore, as called for by the U.S. Department of Education, schools should provide training and support for teachers in the facilitation of a positive and communal school climate (U.S. DoE, 2014), and teacher education and professional development programs should highlight the importance of the school climate improvement process (Bryk et al., 2010; Cohen et al., 2009; Mitchell & Bradshaw, 2013). Of course, stronger and more definitive research on which practices are most effective for creating and maintaining a positive school climate should guide these teacher training activities as it becomes available.

The principal forms the backbone of the facilitation of a positive and communal school climate: Strong leadership is needed to emphasize the importance of school climate and to encourage a focus on continually improving school climate. For example, if principals involve teachers in decision-making processes and support faculty innovation and collaboration, they can create a professional culture of trust and involvement which, in turn, could increase teachers’ motivation and satisfaction. This process may then “ripple out” to the students, who display greater academic achievement and fewer problem behaviors (Price, 2012).

Recommendations

Given the limitations of the evidence base on exactly how a positive school climate can be encouraged and maintained, we focus our recommendations on research priorities that can add clarity about effective policy. Thus, we have several recommendations to guide evaluation research on school climate interventions. The first recommendation is to identify programs that are likely to create more cohesive, communal, and personalized environments and to rigorously test those interventions. Many approaches to creating such environments seem plausible, but no rigorous research has yet established that such changes can be accomplished and that doing so results in a reduction in crime. This appears to be the next big challenge facing school climate research. An impediment to learning about the effects of many school reforms is that the reforms tend to be implemented in all schools in the affected jurisdiction at once. This hinders rigorous evaluation because it leaves no schools in which to measure what would happen in the absence of the reform. A smarter approach would be to randomly assign schools to different phase-in periods, allowing for comparison during the first few years of the schools who implement the reform early and those who will implement it in the future.

The second recommendation pertains to the definition of school climate and how to measure it. Education researchers, policymakers, and leaders at all levels should adopt a definition of school climate that focuses on both the relationships among school community members and the goals and norms of the school. A positive and communal school climate emphasizes supportive and collaborative relationships among school community members and a common set of goals and norms. It involves clear communication about expectations for behavior and fair and consistent responses to violations of those expectations. This leads to a sense of safety and bonding and allows for a focus on effective teaching and learning, which in turn leads to greater academic achievement and lower school crime.

Third, education researchers should develop measurement instruments that comprehensively assess school climate by having all members of the school community surveyed on all school climate dimensions. The reliability and validity of all instruments should be certified by using previously tested measures from assessment tools such as the Comprehensive School Climate Inventory (CSCI; Cohen et al., 2009), the Effective School Battery (ESB; Gottfredson, 1999), and What About You (WAY; Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1999). New measures that need to be developed should be pilot-tested to ensure they are psychometrically sound. Most importantly, analysis of these data should focus only on between-school differences rather than on within-school differences in perceptions of school climate.

While the research is less clear regarding school climate improvement, some steps can be suggested. Improvements could be facilitated by a school climate team, made up of representatives from all school community groups. These teams should be supported by strong leadership at all levels and should reach out to school climate researchers and experts. The school climate teams could engage in the following activities: (1) participation in professional development opportunities to learn about school climate research and best practices; (2) evaluation of policies in light of this research and their own school’s mission and goals; (3) assessment of the current school climate through surveys of all school community members; and (4) implementation of school climate improvement efforts that are incorporated into every facet of the school’s function. Further, these teams should use a data-driven decision-making process to guide the school climate improvement efforts and should evaluate the effects of their activities on the level of school climate, crime, and disorder.

Conclusion

The field has made important strides since the 1980s in understanding the characteristics of schools that predict the problem behaviors of the students attending those schools. Research has also documented some of the ways that school climates can be strengthened. But we still lack a comprehensive change model that incorporates the important elements of school climate, and we have not fully tested comprehensive approaches that alter important aspects of the school environments in meaningful ways. Adopting a shared definition of school climate, developing sound assessment tools to measure school climate, and analyzing school climate date at the appropriate level should advance the field in the short run. Developing comprehensive school climate change models and rigorously evaluating their effects will provide the specific research guidance needed for schools and school districts to make meaningful changes.

Further Reading

Bryk, A. S., & Driscoll, M. (1989). The school as community: Shaping forces and consequences for students and teachers. Madison: University of Wisconsin, National Center on Effective Secondary Schools.Find this resource:

    Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Easton, J. Q., & Luppescu, S. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

      Cohen, J. (2013). Creating a positive school climate: A foundation for resilience. In S. Goldstein & R. B. Brooks (Eds.), Handbook of resilience in children (pp. 411–423). New York: Springer.Find this resource:

        Cook, P. J., Gottfredson, D. C., & Chongmin, N. (2010). School crime control and prevention. Crime and Justice, 39(1), 313–440.Find this resource:

          Gottfredson, D. C. (2001). Schools and delinquency. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

            Gottfredson, G. D., & Gottfredson, D. C. (1985). Victimization in schools. New York: Plenum.Find this resource:

              Gottfredson, D. C., Wilson, D. B., & Najaka, S. S. (2002). School-based crime prevention. In L. W. Sherman, D. P. Farrington, B. C. Welsh, & D. L. MacKenzie (Eds.), Evidence-based crime prevention (pp. 56–164). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                Gottfredson, G. D., Gottfredson, D. C., Payne, A. A., & Gottfredson, N. C. (2005). School climate predictors of school disorder: Results from a national study of delinquency prevention in schools. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 42(4), 412–444.Find this resource:

                  Payne, A. A. (2008). A multilevel analysis of the relationships among communal school organization, student bonding, and school disorder. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 45(4), 429–455.Find this resource:

                    Payne, A. A. (2012). Communal school organization effects on school disorder: Interactions with school structure. Deviant Behavior, 33(7), 507–524.Find this resource:

                      Payne, A. A., Gottfredson, D. C., & Gottfredson, G. D. (2003). Schools as communities: The relationships among communal school organization, student bonding, and school disorder. Criminology, 41(3), 749–777.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                    Notes:

                                                                                                                                                    (1.) This entry is based in large part on the following previous reviews on the same topic: Cook, Gottfredson, and Na (2010), Gottfredson, Cook, and Na (2014), Payne (2017), and Welch and Payne (2014).