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School Climate

Measuring School Climate, School Climate and Outcomes, Issues Trends and Controversies

Anyone who spends time in schools quickly discovers how one school can feel different from other schools. School climate is a general term that refers to the feel, atmosphere, tone, ideology, or milieu of a school. Just as individuals have personalities, so too do schools; a school climate may be thought of as the personality of a school.

The concept of organizational climate has a rich history in the social science literature. In the early 1960s George Sterns was one of the first psychologists who saw the analogy with individual personality and used the concept of organizational climate to study institutions of higher education. The use of the concept quickly spread to schools and business organizations, each with a somewhat different conceptual view of climate. Although there are a variety of conceptualizations, there is general agreement that organizational climate arises from routine organizational practices that are important to an organization's members, that it is defined by member perceptions, and that it influences members' attitudes and behavior. Thus, school climate is a relatively enduring character of a school that is experienced by its participants, that affects their actions, and that is based on the collective perceptions of behavior in the school.

Measuring School Climate

Andrew Halpin and Don Croft's pioneering analysis, The Organizational Climate of Schools, has had a great impact on the study of school climate. They developed the Organizational Climate Description Questionnaire (OCDQ), a sixty-four-item Likertscale questionnaire that is used to assess the teacher–teacher and teacher–administrator interactions found in elementary schools. Teachers and administrators are asked to describe the extent to which key behaviors occur, such as how frequently (rarely, sometimes, often, or very frequently) "The principal stays after school to help teachers finish their work," "The principal looks out for the personal welfare of teachers," and "The teachers accomplish their work with great vim, vigor, and pleasure." Thus, school climate is defined in terms of educators' perceptions of the leadership behavior of the principal and interactions among teachers. Patterns of principal and teacher behaviors are then arrayed along a rough continuum, ranging from open to closed school climates. An open school climate is one in which teacher and principal behavior is supportive, genuine, and engaged, whereas a closed climate is characterized by lack of authenticity, game playing, and disengaged behavior. There were a number of limitations to early versions of the OCDQ. For example, it only measured the climate of elementary schools, and the validity of some of its subtests was questioned.

Subsequent revisions of the OCDQ have addressed these issues, and three new and simplified versions of the questionnaire have been formulated for use in elementary, middle, and secondary schools. The revised OCDQ was conceptualized using the same framework of open versus closed climates and behaviors. For example, open principal behavior in elementary schools is measured through items that describe supportive principal behavior that is neither directive nor restrictive, and open teacher behavior is that which is collegial, intimate, and committed to teaching and learning.

Another climate framework uses a health metaphor–school climate is measured in terms of healthy interpersonal dynamics. In the tradition of the OCDQ, the Organizational Health Inventory (OHI) is a set of descriptive statements that tap productive relationships in school. There are three versions of the OHI–elementary, middle, and secondary. This broad climate perspective examines the relationships between the school and environment, the leadership of the principal, relationships among teachers, and relationships between teachers and students. For example, the secondary version maps seven aspects of school climate:

  1. Institutional Integrity is the extent to which the school is able to manage its constraints from the community
  2. Consideration is principal behavior that is genuinely collegial, friendly, open, and caring toward the faculty
  3. Initiating Structure is principal behavior that is oriented toward both tasks and achievements through clearly articulated work expectations and performance standards
  4. Principal Influence describes the principal's ability to influence superiors
  5. Resource Support is the ability of the principal to obtain classroom materials and supplies needed by teachers
  6. Morale is the collective sense of friendliness, openness, and enthusiasm among members of the teaching staff
  7. Academic Emphasis is the extent to which the teachers and students are committed to academic excellence

A pattern of high scores on these variables defines a healthy school climate. There are, of course, other measures of school climate, but the openness and health frameworks have generated the bulk of the systematic research on school climate.

School Climate and Outcomes

Empirical evidence has linked school climate with achievement. Though school climate is often defined differently in various studies, the research evidence using the OCDQ and the OHI measures of climate is encouraging. Openness of school climate has been linked primarily to expressive characteristics in schools. For example, the more open the school climate, the more committed, loyal, and satisfied the teachers are. Similarly, the more open the climate of the school, the less alienated students tend to be. School climate, from the health perspective, has been positively related to school effectiveness. Most of the health variables correlate significantly with general subjective measures of effectiveness, and the variable of academic emphasis has consistently been related to student achievement in high schools, middle schools, and urban elementary schools. In fact, the relationships hold even controlling for the effects of socioeconomic status.

Issues Trends and Controversies

School climate has become a global construct that researchers often use loosely to group together studies of school environment, learning environment, learning climate, sense of community, leadership, academic climate, and social climate. This broad application reveals both the strength and weakness of school climate study–it is a useful integrating concept on the one hand, but it also suffers from a lack of clear definition. Like so many other terms that are bandied about, the word climate threatens to become meaningless. Because its referents are so diverse, the word sometimes obscures, rather than creates, understanding. School culture is a related term that has been use to describe the work environment; in fact, climate and culture are often used interchangeably by some educators to refer to the distinctive workplace of a school. A useful distinction is that culture consists of shared values and assumptions, whereas climate is defined by shared perceptions of behavior.

In many studies, after a small number of "effective" and "ineffective" schools are identified, researchers catalog each school's organizational characteristics and attempt to find consistent differences between the two types of schools. Not surprisingly, the differences vary from study to study when such post hoc methods are used, and the list of effective school attributes grows as such studies accumulate. In addition, organizational characteristics are defined differently in each study, so that reviewers use general terms to summarize the characteristics of effective schools–terms such as positive school climate and strong leadership, which are often defined quite differently in various studies.

What is missing in much of the research on school climate is the theoretical linkage that explains these relationships. It is important, for example, not only to know that climate is related to student achievement, but also to ascertain why this is so. What are the generalizations and mechanisms that explain higher achievement? These are critical questions, and their answers will provide a deeper understanding of the dynamics of organizational life in schools and suggest more effective and lasting solutions to the problems of practice. Evidence is beginning to suggest, for example, that a school climate with open, healthy, and collegial professional interactions and strong academic emphasis empowers teachers and creates norms of collective efficacy that shape the normative environment of schools and influence teacher behavior. When teachers believe that they can organize and execute their teaching in ways that are successful in helping students learn, and when the school climate supports them, teachers plan more, accept personal responsibility for student performance, are not deterred by temporary setbacks, and act purposefully to enhance student learning. It is important to try to understand how specific school climate attributes influence critical teacher behaviors that improve teaching and learning in the classroom.


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