School climate refers to the general tone of social relations in and around schools: how people in the school relate to each other, the culture that emerges among these people, the norms that they construct. Quite simply, it represents the general ”feel” of the school. This aspect of school context taps the informal processes that occur within schools. Like the more formal processes (e.g., instruction, delivery of curricula), these informal processes affect a wide variety of student outcomes and are important ingredients in the general functioning of schools themselves.
More than other aspects of education, the theoretical and empirical research on school climate bridges multiple disciplines – sociology, psychology, education – and integrates qualitative and quantitative methods. The late James Coleman played a major role in this develop ment. His pioneering study The Adolescent Society (1961) vividly captured the intense dynamics of peer cultures in a group of Mid-western high schools, depicting how the social climate of a school can undermine its formal educational mission. More recently, his formulation of the social capital framework drew explicitly on the positive aspects of school cli mate, such as supportive intergenerational networks between young and old that form in and around schools (Coleman 1990). These social aspects of schooling, he argued, could actually facilitate the educational mission of schools. This basic argument was also a major theme in the effective schools movement of the 1970s (Lightfoot 1982), which emphasized that the social psychological, interpersonal, and political aspects of school cultures and surrounding communities were the building blocks of successful teaching and learning.
The concept of school climate in general and Coleman’s discussion of social capital in schools in particular have served as both foundation and foil to sociologists. Some have pursued a more thorough understanding of the linkage between the formal and informal processes of school or the role of the school as a context of human development, while others have objected to the lack of precision in social capital concepts, the apparent lack of amenability of the cultures that arise in schools to policy intervention, and the overgeneralizations of schools and students that arose from early studies in this field. Still, this back and forth has ultimately resulted in a rich body of empirical research on school climate, which can be broken down into three general areas: peer culture in the school, intergenerational relations in the school, and the school community.
First, schools, especially middle schools and high schools, serve as the most concrete, identifiable, bounded site of peer culture in the early life course. They group together – in a specific physical location under a common institutional identity – large numbers of young people for extended periods of most days in the majority of weeks in the year. At the same time, class enrollment patterns and curricular assignments further differentiate these larger groups of young people into smaller subsets characterized by sustained interaction. The work of Maureen Hallinan and her colleagues has demonstrated how, on both of these levels, schools affect the formation of friendships and the construction of peer networks (Kubitschek & Hallinan 1998). In effect, schools organize systems of social relations, which have their own distinct norms, values, and behavioral patterns. These diverse peer cultures, in aggregate, affect the general climate of the school. This peer dimension of school climate can range from positive (e.g., prosocial, academically focused) to negative (e.g., oppositional). The type of school based peer climate to which students are exposed, in turn, influences their academic progress and general development. On a more macro level, this aspect of school climate can effect larger patterns of inequality.
Numerous ethnographies, such as School Talk (Eder et al. 1995), have illustrated how these cultural patterns constructed among young people in a school can make that school an incredibly difficult – or alternatively, supportive – place to be. The ability of schools to teach and transmit knowledge is intricately related to what goes on among students. Indeed, quantitative analyses have revealed that students’ social psychological functioning is highly reactive to the general norms of the student body and its subgroups and that this social psychological functioning is a major factor in their academic functioning. Also related to these in school cultures is the integration of diverse student populations and the magnitude of race and class inequality. Research has consistently shown that the ease with which school integration proceeds is, in part, a function of the cross pollination of the peer networks of different racial populations (Moody 2001).
Second, schools are a primary point of con tact between young and old, in that schools serve children and adolescents but are operated by adults. The degree to which teachers and other school personnel connect to students is a crucial element in school climate. Whether conflict or cordiality reigns is important to students’ trajectories through their years in that school. The nature of the intergenerational cli mate in the school can be thought of according to different dimensions, including support, warmth, and mutual respect. Students tend to do better academically in schools with climates that encompass all three, but, importantly, they are also happier in these schools. In other words, positive intergenerational climates foster better mental health as well as better academic performance. Indeed, as seen in the research of Bryk et al. (1993), as well as others interested in school size and sector, the relative costs and benefits of attending a large or small school, a Catholic or public school, are often predicated on the type of intergenerational climates that characterize each. At the same time, Alexander and Entwisle’s (1988) seminal research on the early school years has demonstrated the central role of student-teacher relations in race and class differences in academic achievement and learning, patterns that have been replicated on the high school level. Teachers and students are the two primary populations in schools, and so the distance between them helps to determine if a school climate is good, bad, or essentially inequitable.
Third, the climate of schools is a function of factors nominally outside the school as well as those that occur on school grounds. In short, the school is part of a larger community. On one level, this community refers to the actual neighborhoods surrounding the school. In its simplest form, the school is a building that rests in a certain area. That area is an ecology in which the school ”lives and grows.” Certainly, a wealth of evidence has demonstrated that the characteristics of the community in which the school is situated can affect what occurs in the school. Criminal activity and poverty in the surrounding area, for example, complicate the educational mission of schools – students have more trouble learning, and teachers teaching, when they are distracted, distressed, and frightened. The climate of education suffers in these areas, despite the best efforts of schools. The case for the significance of this aspect of school climate has emerged from both detailed ethnography, such as Ain’t No Making It (McLeod 1995), and demographic analysis of neighborhood effects. On another level, the school community refers to the collection of families whose children attend the school; how closely connected students’ parents are to the school and to the other families in the school matters. Parents are better able to manage and monitor their children’s education – and stay involved in their children’s lives in general – when they feel welcomed at school, when they feel support from other parents, when they have teachers or other parents to whom they can turn. Likewise, strong bonds between the adults who have ties to the school provide a dense protective cover around children as they grow and develop. Coleman was a leader in stressing the value of this aspect of school climate, but the field of inquiry around it has, in effect, taken on a life of its own. Certainly, the idea of the school community is one of the driving forces in con temporary school reform and educational policy. Children go to school, but, in schools with a positive climate, they do not leave their families behind when they do.
The centrality of school climate to both education and developmental research has increased considerably in recent decades. It is a true growth field in sociology and related disciplines. Interest in the climates of school and their significance continues to be spurred on by new theoretical perspectives, such as human ecology; by new educational philosophies, such as the ethos of caring advocated by educational researchers like Nel Noddings; improvements in data collection, such as Add Health’s large in school samples, which allow the creation of summary measures of the behaviors, beliefs, and adjustment of the student body; and, unfortunately, by public events, such as Columbine, that drive home the importance of making schools good places to be as well as centers of learning.
- Alexander, K. & Entwisle, D. (1988) Achievement in the First Two Years of School: Patterns and Processes. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Bryk, A. S., Lee, V. E., & Holland, P. B. (1993) Catholic Schools and the Common Good. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Coleman, J. (1961) The Adolescent Society. Free Press of Glencoe, New York.
- Coleman, J. (1990) Foundations of Social Theory. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Eder, D., Evans, C., & Parker, S. (1995) School Talk: Gender and Adolescent Culture. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
- Kubitschek, W. & Hallinan, M. (1998) Tracking and Students’ Friendships. Social Psychology Quarterly 61: 1-15.
- Lightfoot, S. L. (1982) The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Culture. Basic Books, New York.
- McLeod, J. (1995) Ain’t No Making It. Westview Press, Boulder.
- Moody, J. (2001) Race, School Integration, and Friendship Segregation in America. American Journal of Sociology 107: 679-716.
- Noddings, N. (1992) The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education. Teacher’s College, New York.