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 Theme Article

Evaluating and Improving School Climate

 Creating a Climate for Learning

Fall 2007
ver the last three decades, educators and researchers have worked to identify specific elements that make up school climate, and, in the process, to identify exactly what school climate is. Although there is not "one list" that summarizes these elements to the satisfaction of all, virtually all researchers suggest that there are four major areas that are essential to pay attention to: safety; relationships; teaching and learning; and, the environment (see Table 1 below).

Over the last 10 to 15 years, educational research has underscored what educators and parents have known for generations: school climate is predictive of, and associated with, a range of positive effects for students, from fewer disciplinary incidents and more effective risk prevention/health promotion efforts to improved academic performance. Positive school climate, not surprisingly, also enhances teacher retention (Learning First Alliance, 2001; Cohen et al. in press).

Historically, independent school leaders have been particularly attuned to the nature of their school communities. What schools tend not to do, however, is actually measure, analyze, and evaluate school climate. At the Center for Social and Emotional Education (founded at Teachers College, Columbia University), where I work, we've come to see that formally evaluating school climate is one of the best ways to ensure a healthy climate.

What is "school climate" exactly? Although definitions vary, most connect it to the quality and character of school life — reflecting the norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching, learning, leadership 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. When a school climate is healthy, people feeling socially, emotionally, and physically safe; they are engaged and respected; students, families, and educators work together to develop and contribute to a shared school vision; educators model and nurture an attitude that emphasizes the benefits and satisfaction from learning; and everyone contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment.1

Table 1 Ten Essential Dimensions of School Climate
Physical Crisis plan; clearly communicated rules; clear and consistent violation response; people in the school feel physically safe; attitudes about violence.
Social — Emotional Rules and norms related to verbal abuse; harassment and teasing; clearly communicated rules; clear and consistent response for violations; attitudes about and responses to verbal and emotional bullying; conflict resolution taught in school; belief in school rules.
Teaching and Learning
Quality of Instruction High expectations for student achievement; all learning styles honored; help provided when needed; learning linked to "real life"; engaging materials; use of praise/reward; opportunities for participation; varied teaching methods.
Social, Emotional, and Ethical Skills and Education Feel social, emotional, and ethical — as well as academic — learning is important; teachers are invested in helping students develop these skills; social, emotional, and ethical skills are explicitly and implicitly taught.
Professional Development Standards and measures used to support learning and continuous improvement; professional development systematic and ongoing; data-driven decision making linked to learning; school systems evaluated; teachers feel that this is relevant and helpful.
Leadership Compelling and clearly communicated vision; administrative accessibility and support.
Respect for Diversity Positive adult-adult relationships between/among teachers, administrators, and staff; positive adult-student relationships; positive student-student relationships; shared decision-making; common planning opportunities; diversity valued; student participation in learning and discipline.
School Community & Collaboration Students/adults feel and demonstrate sense of community in the school. Mutual support and ongoing communication; school-community involvement; parent participation in school decision-making; shared parent-teacher norms vis-à-vis learning and behavior.
Morale Students are engaged learners; staff are enthusiastic about their work; students connected to one or more adults; students/staff feel good about school.
Environmental Adequacy Cleanliness and order of facilities; adequate space, materials, and time.
We are always measuring things. Formally, and reliably or not, our measurements or judgments shape our goals and behavior. It is a truism in education that what we measure is what counts. Although this is perhaps most true in public schools, it holds for independent schools as well. Although SAT scores, to take one obvious example, are shockingly poor predictors of adult success and satisfaction, these linguistic and mathematical test scores continue to drive a great deal of high school student and teacher behavior.

When measuring school climate, a school recognizes the social, emotional, and ethical — as well as academic — dimensions of school life. Unlike SAT scores, social and emotional competencies and ethical dispositions do predict adults' capacity to love, work, and feel a sense of well-being (Cohen, 2006). Not surprisingly, most educators believe that school climate matters. A recent survey of public and independent school heads, commissioned by the Center for Social and Emotional Intelligence, revealed that over 90 percent believed that school climate should be evaluated.

There are a variety of ways that schools can assess how students, parents, and school personnel gauge school climate (Freiberg, 1999). Some schools conduct focus groups; others carry out a series of interviews and/or observations or ask division heads and others to synthesize information from a variety of sources. However, our experience indicates that school climate is best measured by polling all members of the school community about their perceptions of school life. Ideally, school climate assessment is carried out with a reliable and valid instrument that has been developed in a scientifically sound manner and is comprehensive in two ways: (1) recognizing student, parent, and school personnel perspectives; and, (2) assessing all four of the major dimensions that color and shape school climate: safety, relationships, teaching and learning, and the environment.

Sometimes it may be useful to focus on one aspect of school climate (e.g., safety). But, more often, educators find it most helpful to understand the range of climate-related strengths and needs. In a somewhat overlapping manner, some schools want to focus on how one group (e.g., teachers) feels about school life. But school climate assessments that take into account the views of students, parents, and school personnel tend to be logarithmically more valuable. For example, it is common that comprehensive school climate evaluation reveals important differences between populations or sub-populations of the school community. When students (or a sub-group of students) report that social bullying is a severe problem for example, but the adults (parents and school personnel) report that it is only a "mild" to "moderately" severe problem, this is meaningful.

School climate evaluations can be used as a springboard for authentic community building, understanding, and change. In fact, evaluating and improving school climate can be a process that actually promotes the skills and dispositions that provide the foundation for democratic citizenship. Although becoming an engaged participant in our democracy is an explicit or implicit facet of virtually all independent schools' mission statements, it is curious how rarely we talk about what this actually means. What are the skills and dispositions that help people to become engaged citizens in a democracy? (See Table 2 below.)

Change — be it at the individual or school level — is hard work. There is rarely one thing that we can do or "fix" that results in substantive change. Virtually all school reform and school climate improvement models are based on old-fashioned problem-solving cycle: (1) planning for change or beginning to recognize what we have done in the past and what our preliminary goals may be; (2) assessing strengths, needs, and weaknesses; (3) understanding the evaluation findings and developing an action plan; (4) implementing the action plan; and, (5) re-evaluating what have we accomplished and beginning to plan for the next phase of school climate improvement. In theory (if not always in practice), this is what we do with individual student evaluations: we assess students strengths and needs, we set learning goals, we set in motion a series of in-class and homework-based learning activities designed to support student achievement, and then evaluate to what extent those learning objectives have been met and develop new instructional goals based on this understanding.

What follows is a brief description of the first three stages of the school climate improvement process below. As you read them, I invite you to think about the skills and dispositions outlined in Table 2 (as well as any others that you think I may be omitting).

Table 2 Skills and Dispositions Required for Participation in a Democracy
Essential Skills Essential Dispositions
Ability to listen to ourselves and to others. Responsibility or the inclination to respond to others in appropriate ways.
Ability to be critical and reflective. Appreciation of our existence as social creatures that need others to survive and thrive.
Ability to be flexible problem solvers and decision makers, including the ability to resolve conflict in creative, nonviolent ways. Appreciation of and inclination toward involvement with social justice.
Communicative abilities — e.g., being able to participate in discussions and argue thoughtfully. Inclination to serve others and participate in acts of good will.
Collaborative capacities — e.g., learning to compromise and work together toward a common goal.
Taken from: Cohen, J. (2006). "Social, Emotional, Ethical, and Academic Education: Creating a Climate for Learning, Participation in Democracy and Well-Being." Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 76, No. 2, pp. 201–237.
Planning for Change
Substantive school change requires planning. As with a "sailing voyage," there are a series of well-known "planning steps" that tend to make school improvement efforts more successful. Is there a shared understanding, acceptance, and enthusiasm about our "voyage," our school improvement plans? Do we have the necessary resources for this "journey," this process of change? Are all members of the community ready to help? Do we have a preliminary idea about where we hope to "go" and what the barriers may be? Do "members of the crew" appreciate that no voyage will go exactly as planned? There is one other very important planning consideration that does not fit neatly into the sailing metaphor: do members of the school community appreciate that any evaluation of our school will reveal needs and weaknesses? Some school heads are understandably anxious that an angry parent, trustee, or faculty member may use "negative" school climate findings to attack the school head. During the planning phase, school leaders have an opportunity to educate the community about the fact that all schools (like all people) have weaknesses as well as strengths. School climate assessment provides an opportunity to understand current strengths, weaknesses, and needs in ways that, ultimately, improve the school socially, emotionally, ethically, and academically.

Not surprisingly, we have discovered that, when school heads ask members of the school community to complete a school climate survey out of the blue, it tends to "bomb" because it stirs resentment and anxiety. As a result, we encourage school heads to think about the five-stage process of school climate improvement outlined above. For example, when Penny Reigelman, head of Newark Academy, decided that she wanted to administer the Comprehensive School Climate Inventory (CSCI) at her school, she initially held a series of discussions with her leadership team and members of the school community. "What kind of school-wide assessments have we done in the past? What is our impression about our past and current strengths and needs? What do we most want to learn from this assessment of our school climate?" In doing so, she began to mobilize the whole school community, implicitly saying, "As a community, we need to learn and understand together what our strengths and needs are. And we will need to work together to understand what these findings mean so we can make sustained instructional and/or systemic changes over time." Newark Academy, in fact, used the school climate evaluation as a first step in a strategic school improvement process.

Assessing Strengths, Needs, and Weaknesses
To a great extent, the actual assessment or survey completion process is straightforward and warrants little discussion. What is important is that we include all members of the school community. But there is one potentially problematic issue here: ensuring that a representative number of parents join this effort. In virtually all schools we have worked with, we have found that student and school personnel participation is extraordinary high, but parent participation varies tremendously. There is a range of reasons why some groups of parents tend to stay less involved. To the extent that a school wants to use school climate evaluation as a springboard for a school-wide improvement process, it is important to anticipate this issue. Our center has gathered, and will continue to gather, information and guidelines that support full participation in the evaluation process.

Understanding School Climate Findings and Action Planning
When schools receive a comprehensive school climate evaluation report, they have an opportunity to set in motion a process of understanding, engagement, community building, action planning, and improvement. In partnership with school heads and "leadership teams," we have discovered that it is useful to think about four steps that schools can focus on during this third stage of the school climate improvement process: understanding and "digging deeper" into the findings; promoting school connectedness; prioritizing; and action planning.

• Understanding and "digging deeper": Too often, evaluations are not fully understood and are not used as a springboard for collaborative planning and change efforts. Think about how often you have seen a student go through a comprehensive psychoeducational diagnostic evaluation and receive a 10- to 15-page report that no one fully understands. Too often, the same has held true for school climate evaluations. Ideally, school climate evaluations result in a detailed report that "slices and dices" the data in a range of ways. Like our students, we learn and process information in a range of ways. (We have found, for example, that some educators only focus on the most detailed numerical summaries and others only focus on the "overview" findings.) In any case, it is important that, after the school head has an opportunity to digest the findings, he or she should then set in motion a process for all members of the community to understand the findings. Different schools do this in different ways. At Newark Academy, Penny Riegelman reports, "We shared it with the parent body, board of trustees, and then the students. We really looked at our policies re: bullying. Some students said there were ‘loathe to report [bullying]'. We asked what we could do that would make a difference? With other issues, I sat down with groups of parents in every parent group for each grade to remind them of the findings and begin the conversation."

Scott Bezsylko, head of Winston Preparatory School (New York), reported: "I used school climate findings as a faculty development tool to help faculty know what we are doing well and what we can do differently. We discussed it at several meetings. We brainstormed together — what are all the things we can do to improve? I used it as tangible evidence, not just my opinion. I used it in work with new teachers and discussed the implications with the board of trustees. I have discussed it with students in the communication and socialization classes. I am using it to plan the next phase of faculty development. It is a work in process. I plan to create a manual… listing… the 10 ways we might address a given item that emerged in the [Comprehensive School Climate Inventory] in the curriculum. We want it to help us set goals and inform our practice for the long run."

Just as teachers, students, and parents need to consider "what feels true" in a psychoeducational diagnostic report, educators need to consider what feels true with a school climate evaluation report. Findings from a 15- or 20-minute survey (or a 10-hour psychoeducational evaluation) are just "snapshots": we can and need to consider how to "dig deeper" into these findings. Our Center is "harvesting" a growing body of information about how schools are digging deeper into school climate findings.

• Promoting school connectedness: The process of "digging deeper" into school climate findings can be used to promote school engagement in a number of ways. To the extent that school heads and leadership teams can authentically say "we understand what all members of the school community believe are our strengths and weaknesses," they have taken a substantive step towards promoting school engagement. Naturally, what is critical is how school heads then use this information.

To build on the earlier — and very common — example of students' reporting that bullying is a much more severe problem than adults believe it is, we can have students become our teachers. Clearly, they know something we don't! We can educate and support students to become participatory action researchers — training them to interview other students and discover "why do we do this?" and "what contributes to so many people being passive bystanders rather than ‘upstanders' when bullying occurs?" When we recognize a reported problem and empower students to be learners, we are promoting student connectedness. There is an extraordinary and growing body of educational research (see References at bottom of page) that underscores how predictive student connectedness is to positive youth development, academic achievement, and effective risk prevention.

To the extent that parents and/or school personnel also feel that they are "being heard" and are a part of the process of school improvement, we are building a true learning community. To support this process, it is essential that the school adopt what psychiatrist and educator James Comer (2005) has called a "no fault" framework for learning and school improvement efforts.

• Prioritizing: School climate evaluations typically result in a myriad of findings. One of the challenges — and opportunities — for school heads and their leadership teams is how to prioritize goals. Synthesizing research and best practices — from school reform, character education, social-emotional learning, and school-based mental health — we have delineated a series of "process recommendations" for school climate improvement efforts. For example, it is often wiser to begin with "small wins" or goals that can realistically yield some tangible results in the first 12 months of work. If we focus on the most challenging tasks first, this often inadvertently leads to little or no short-term change and demoralization. In any case, how we go about prioritizing goals with representatives of the school community is, by definition, a democratic process. It is a process that requires that we listen deeply and reflectively to ourselves and others in order to be creative problem solvers and collaborators. Penny Riegelman and her community discovered that their "biggest question was about faculty-student relationships. We had taken it for granted that this was a major strength in our school. And, in many ways, it was. However, the CSCI findings made us look again to see pieces that perhaps we were taking for granted."

• Action planning: As the community prioritizes goals under the leadership of the school head, it needs to translate these goals into an action plan. What are our short- and long-term goals and how will we act on them? For example, schools that decide to focus on bully-victim behavior need to learn that anti-bullying efforts that only focus on the bully and/or the victim tend to fail. On the other hand, programmatic efforts that focus on the bully-victim-witness cycle and the educator-parent-mental-health partnerships dramatically reduce bully-victim behavior and simultaneously create truly caring, responsible democratic communities (Devine and Cohen, 2007). Ideally, action plans include clear "benchmarks" or ways that the school community can learn to what extent our instructional and/or systemic implementation efforts are making a difference.

Assessment has always been a part of teaching and learning. School climate assessment has the potential not only to support our understanding of a school's strengths and challenges, but also to promote student voices, foster community building, and establish a foundation for evidence-based planning that will better align action with mission.

I have suggested that an essential first step includes measuring school climate in scientifically sound and comprehensive ways. When we do this, we not only bring together the school community as a genuine learning community, we also explicitly recognize the social, emotional, civic, and ethical as well as cognitive and environmental dimensions of school life. In the process, we also promote the skills and dispositions that provide the foundation for success in school — and in life.

Jonathan Cohen, a clinical psychologist, is the co-founder and president of the Center for Social and Emotional Education and an adjunct professor in psychology and education, Teachers College, Columbia University. He is the founder and series editor of the Teachers College Press Social Emotional Learning series, and author of many books including the 2007 Making Your School Safe: Strategies to Protect Children and Promote Learning (Teachers College Press). For more information on school climate, contact him at


Cohen, J. (2006). Social, emotional, ethical and academic education: Creating a climate for learning, participation in democracy and well-being. Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 76, No. 2, Summer, pp. 201–237.

Cohen, J, McCabe, L, Mitchelli, N.M & Pickeral, T. (In press, 2007). School Climate: Research, Policy, Teacher Education and Practice. Teachers College Record.

Comer, J. P. (2005). Leave No Child Behind: Preparing Today's Youth for Tomorrow's World. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Devine, J & Cohen, J. (2007). Making our schools safe: Strategies to protect children and promote learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Freiberg, H. J. (Ed.). (1999). School climate: Measuring, improving and sustaining healthy learning environments. Philadelphia, PA: Falmer Press.

Learning First Alliance (2001). Every child learning: Safe and supportive schools. Baltimore: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine (2004). Engaging schools: Fostering high school students' motivation to learn. Committee on Increasing High School students' engagement and motivation to learn. Board on Children, Youth and Families, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Center for Social and Emotional Education:

National School Climate Center:

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory:
  1. This definition emerged from a collaborative "consensus" discussion among members of the National School Climate Council.
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