CAHELP eNews - May 24, 2018

writing on the wall tha states know the rules
Whether you have a serious need for culture change on your campus or are looking forward to what should be a smooth school year, the benefits of a positive school climate are worth meditating on. According to the California Department of Education, when the members of a school feel safe, valued, cared for, respected, and engaged, learning increases. However, too often, fragmented solutions are implemented, are marginalized in the school, and improvements are short-lived. If you have found yourself looking at your latest survey results and wondering where the disconnect is, then understanding the differences between culture and climate may be the first step you should take toward change. With that in mind, consider the following questions:
  • How does your school approach an upcoming school year?
  • What do visitors feel when they walk onto your campus?
  • Do your mission and vision statements accurately reflect the way you do things on your campus?

With your team, further consideration of these questions may help you identify how school culture differs from school climate on your campus, and the key role they play in facilitating any kind of change within your school. "Whenever a group of people spend a significant amount of time together, they develop a common set of expectations. These expectations evolve into unwritten rules to which the group members conform in order to remain in good standing with their colleagues." (Gruenert, 2008). To help shed light on the unwritten rules of your school, consider the following definitions of school climate and school culture provided by Alliance for Education Solutions (AES).

School climate is the feel of the school (the school's attitude), the behaviors and points of view exhibited and experienced by students, teachers, and other stakeholders.

School climate is the outcome of the school's norms and values, the way in which people at the school relate to and interact with one another, and the way systems and policies manifest. According to the National School Climate Center, "school climate includes major spheres of school life such as safety, relationships, teaching and learning, and the environment as well as larger organizational patterns." These dimensions not only shape how students feel about being in school, but "these larger group trends shape learning and student development."

School culture is the way things are done in the school (the personality of a school), the underlying norms and values that shape patterns of behavior, attitudes, and expectations between stakeholders in the school. Deal and Peterson (1998) define school culture as "norms, values, beliefs, traditions, and rituals built up over time." A school's culture is always at work, either helping or hindering learning. It influences every decision and action in a school, from the leadership style of the principal to the way teachers choose curriculum materials and interact with students.

"Understanding the differences and similarities between culture and climate gives us a more precise instrument by which we might improve our schools." (Gruenert, 2008). The table below illustrates the contrast between climate and culture and provides examples of how the attitude of a school can affect the personality of a school.

table describing the differences and similarites between culture and climate

According to the National Education Association, the first step to changing school culture is making changes to your school's climate and considering features of evidence-based practices that support the improvement of school climate, which include:

  • Multi-tiered framework
  • Communication across partners
  • Assess school climate from multiple perspectives
  • Data-based decision making

The following School Climate MTSS Implementation Steps have been provided by the Center for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports in the Technical Brief, "Every Student Succeeds Act: Why School Climate * Should Be One of Your Indicators".

Step 1: Identify, merge, modify, and/or develop a school, district, and/or state leadership team to lead and coordinate school climate improvement effort.

Step 2: Identify factors that contribute to perceptions of negative school climate for all students, groups of students, and/or individual students and specify measurable improvement indicators at each tier.

Step 3: Identify existing and new practices and systems (interventions, programs, personnel, resources) that are evidence-based, specifically address factors identified in Step 1, and can be organized within an MTSS framework.

Step 4: Eliminate, merge, and integrate practices and systems that are redundant, not contextually/culturally relevant, non-evidence-based, misaligned, not implementable, etc.

Step 5: Develop a decision-based data system that includes (a) regular universal screening, (b) continuous progress monitoring, (c) evaluation of practice implementation fidelity, and (d) assessment of school climate status.

Step 6: Prepare and organize resources, policy, personnel, etc., for sustainable and high-fidelity implementation of the full continuum of support across classroom and non-classroom settings.

Step 7: Adjust MTSS continuum of practices and systems based on regular assessment of need, student responsiveness to intervention, and implementation fidelity.

Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS; Sugai & Horner, 2006) is a three-tiered prevention strategy that focuses on the prevention of student behavior problems and promotes a positive, collaborative school environment. Schools implementing PBIS have documented significant decreases in discipline problems (e.g., bullying, aggressive behaviors, suspensions, office discipline referrals) enhanced school climate, reduced need for counseling and special education services, and improved academic outcomes and prosocial behavior. (Bradshaw et al., 2010; 2012, Horner et al., 2009).

Research also suggests school climate is a key factor in understanding current trends in the education field, which says a lot about how powerful unwritten rules really are and the long-term effects they can have on student and teacher success. School climate efforts also have the potential of increasing job satisfaction and teacher retention, which is a major concern considering the high rate of turnover in the field of education (Boe et al., 2008; Kaiser, 2011). Taking time to reflect on the differences between school culture and school climate on our campuses may be the permission we need to go from thinking of creating professional development opportunities for teachers to creating opportunities for teachers to become champions for kids.


CDE School Climate

PBIS Official Website

AES Impact School Climate and Culture

NAESP Resources

NEA Bully Free Research