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School Climate in American High Schools

by Aaron M. Pallas - 1988

In a study on school effectiveness, a random sample of more than 10,000 teachers from 538 high schools were surveyed to examine the climate of American high schools. Based on teacher reports, school climate measures were developed and related to schools and teachers. Methodology and results are discussed. (Source: ERIC)

I am grateful to Laura Salganik, Joyce Stern, Larry Suter, Richard Verdugo, and Mary Frase Williams for their comments on earlier drafts.

The concept of school climate associated with the effective schools movement has been identified as central to many school reform agendas. This is because school climate is, first, believed to be related to educational outcomes and, second, thought to be manipulable by principals and school administrators. Most school-climate research has taken place in urban elementary schools, and it is an open question whether this research applies equally well to secondary schools, which frequently are larger and more heterogeneous than elementary schools.

This article describes school climate in a representative sample of American high schools. Based on teacher reports, a variety of school-climate measures are developed, and these measures are related to characteristics of schools and teachers. The results indicate that the effective schools model of school climate does not apply well to secondary schools. Most of the variation in teacher reports of school climate is among teachers within the same school, not among schools. Moreover, the strongest correlates of high school climate are environmental features of the school largely beyond the school’s control. The results call into question the extent to which improving high school climate can be expected to improve student achievement.

The concept of school climate predates recent reform efforts in American education. School—climate research began in earnest in the 1960s, and continued to proliferate through the early 1980s. The popularity of this distinctive brand of educational research stems from two major beliefs.

First, school climate is thought to be linked to educational outcomes, especially achievement. Common sense suggests that a positive school climate should promote higher achievement. Many of our unscientific impressions about what defines a positive school climate—for instance, well-mannered, motivated students, and high standards and expectations for discipline and academic performance—seem to be linked quite directly to educational achievement. The second reason for the popularity of school—climate research is the belief that school climate is a manipulable variable. While various attributes of student body composition—such as the mix of racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and perhaps the raw talents that students bring to the school—are held to be fixed, school climate is believed malleable. If managers can rework organizational climates to their liking, so too should principals and school administrators be able to manipulate school climates.

The concept of school climate is not a simple one. Definitions differ in the variables they identify as important, the method of measuring those variables, and the appropriate unit of measurement.1 As a result, there is no common definition on which most scholars can agree. One model of school climate that recently has taken on special prominence has been the effective schools model. Typically identified with the work of Ronald Edmonds,2 this model usually includes some combination of the following strong administrative leadership; high expectations for performance; a safe, orderly atmosphere; an emphasis on basic skills; and a system for frequent monitoring of pupil progress. While the empirical evidence linking the effective schools model to achievement is quite weak,3 it nevertheless has been advocated by educational practitioners and reformers as offering concrete steps for improving student outcomes.

The effective schools model was developed primarily from a series of observational studies of urban inner-city elementary schools. These studies did not measure the concepts in the model in a consistent way, and, as noted earlier, the elements of the model vary from one study to the next. The research reported here breaks with this tradition somewhat by developing a set of climate measures derived from a large, nationally representative sample of U.S. high schools. While not cast as an effective schools study, this article does cover some of the same territory.


The data described in this article are from a survey of secondary school teachers conducted in the spring of 1984 by the Consortium for the Study of Effective Schools, a group of five educational research and development centers funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. The sample drawn consisted of 538 secondary schools, both public and private, that participated in the High School and Beyond study, a longitudinal study of the experiences of high school-aged youth conducted by the Center for Statistics in the Office of Educational Research and Improvement. When properly weighted, the schools represent the population of U.S. high schools in 1980 with tenth and/or twelfth grades that were still in existence in the 1983-1984 academic year.

A random sample of up to thirty teachers (defined as full-time teaching staff spending at least 50 percent of their time teaching in classrooms) was selected from each sampled school. In schools with fewer than thirty eligible teachers, all such teachers were included in the sample. The response rates for both schools and teachers were quite high. Of the schools selected for the study, 90 percent agreed to participate. In the participating schools, 85.8 percent of the teachers sampled returned completed questionnaires. The teacher questionnaire consisted of ten pages of questions covering teacher attitudes, classroom and other teaching activities, school characteristics, and background information. Although not every teacher responded to every question, 10,382 teachers completed at least 50 percent of the questionnaire.


Factor analysis of items from the teacher questionnaire was used to construct five scales representing different aspects of school climate.4 Five climate scales, ranging from four to fourteen items each, were constructed from the teacher questionnaire. The scales are Principal Leadership, Teacher Control, Teacher Morale, Staff Cooperation, and Student Behavior.

Principal Leadership is a fourteen-item scale measuring the principal’s administrative leadership. Examples of items in the scale are “The principal sets priorities, makes plans, and sees that they are carried out,” and “The principal does a poor job of getting resources for this school.”

Teacher Control is a nine-item scale measuring teacher control over school and classroom policy. Examples include how much influence teachers have over establishing the school’s curriculum, and how much control teachers have in their classrooms in selecting textbooks and other instructional materials.

Teacher Morale is a four-item scale measuring the responding teacher’s morale. Examples of items are “How much of the time do you feel satisfied with your job in this school?” and “I sometimes feel it is a waste of time to try to do my best as a teacher.”

Staff Cooperation is an eight-item scale. Examples include “There is a great deal of cooperative effort among staff members,” and “You can count on most staff members to help out anywhere, anytime—even though it may not be part of their official assignment.”

Student Behavior is a seven-item scale measuring teachers’ reports of student disruption of teaching and learning. Sample items are “The level of student misbehavior (e.g., noise, horseplay, or lighting in the halls, cafeteria, or student lounge) and/or drug or alcohol use in this school interferes with my teaching," and “On the average, about what percent of class time is spent getting students to behave?”

A teacher’s response to each question may represent either a positive or a negative judgment about the climate. For instance, agreement with the Teacher Morale item “I usually look forward to each working day at school” suggests a positive climate, while disagreement suggests a negative climate. Or, perhaps, spending less than 5 percent of class time getting students to behave may represent good student behavior and more than 5 percent poor student behavior. Judgments about whether particular responses represent positive or negative climates are not established by the data, but rather must be imposed by the investigator. While the judgments about what is good and what is bad are subjective, for most items there probably is broad agreement about which responses indicate a good climate and which do not. The responses to each item in each scale were thus scored as either positive or negative, based on judgments about what constitutes a positive response.

After establishing a value for each item in the scales, the next task was to assign a value of either positive or negative to the scales themselves. It probably is too rigid a criterion to demand that all of the items in a scale have positive values for the scale to be scored positively; at the same time, a positive climate scale should represent predominantly positive items. Hence, a climate scale is deemed positive if at least two-thirds of the items in the scale have positive responses.5


Table 1 shows the proportion of all teachers surveyed who rated favorably the various aspects of school climate. More than one-half of all teachers claim high levels of principal leadership and staff cooperation in their schools. Almost two-thirds report high levels of control over classroom and school policy, and just under three-quarters of the teachers have high morale levels. Only for student behavior do teachers retreat from an otherwise positive assessment of school climate, as only about two-fifths of the respondents give positive marks to student behavior. On balance, though, most teachers in the sample believe that the schools in which they teach have positive school climates.


While a majority of teachers report high levels of principal leadership, staff cooperation, teacher morale, and teacher control over decision making, it also is clear that large numbers of teachers do not. A very important question is whether all the teachers in some schools report positive climates and all the teachers in other schools report negative climates, or whether most schools typically have a mix of positive and negative teacher reports. The reason this issue is so important is that the patterning of positive and negative climate reports has important consequences for the way we think about school climate. The literature to date suggests that school climate is a relatively undifferentiated feature of the school environment. In this view, most of the teachers in a given school should give very similar ratings to the climate in the school—that is, within schools, there should be few differences among teachers. Accordingly, to the extent that there are differences across all the teachers in the survey, these differences would represent differences among the average climate levels in different schools (i.e., some schools have positive climates, while others do not).

An opposing view would be that there are no appreciable differences between schools in the average climate levels, but that within schools there is great diversity among teachers in their reports of school climate. If this were the case, it would suggest that school climate is not a unitary attribute of schools. If school-level climates do not exist in most schools, then changing the school climate cannot improve school-level achievement. In contrast, the first view suggests that improving school-level climate is a means of increasing school-level achievement. It makes a great deal of difference, then, which of these two views more accurately characterizes the teachers and schools in this study.

The technical question being asked here is, how much of the variation in teacher responses is between schools and how much is within schools? In the first view, all of the variation is between schools, and none of it is within schools. Hence, the proportion of the total variation among teacher reports that is between schools is 100 percent. In the second view, all of the variation in teacher reports is within schools, and none of it is between schools. Thus, the proportion of the total variation among teacher ratings that is between schools is 0 percent. The reality lies somewhere in between the two views, but precisely where matters greatly. Table 1 shows the proportion of the total variation among teacher climate reports that is between schools. The proportions range from 8.8 percent, for teacher morale, to 18.6 percent, for student behavior. Uniformly, these proportions are low. They indicate that, on average, the mean teacher report of school climate does not differ much from school to school. Rather, even within a given school there is considerable variation in teacher ratings of the climate dimensions. There is slightly more within-school variation in teacher morale than in the other measures, but the important point is that for all five climate measures teachers in the same school differ considerably.


Since school-to-school variations in climate are small, relative to differences among teachers within a given school, attention is properly focused on characteristics of teachers that are related to their reports of school climate. The school-to-school differences in climate ratings are examined in a later section of this article. For now, the backgrounds and classroom experiences of teachers are considered correlates of positive climates.

Teacher background characteristics are considered first. Table 2 displays the proportion of teachers reporting positive school climates by the teacher’s race, ethnic origin, sex,’ educational attainment, and total years of teaching experience. The major message of this table is that teacher reports of school climate have little to do with their personal characteristics. Males and females, whites and minorities, new and experienced teachers, and more and less educated teachers all give generally similar ratings to their schools’ climates.6 There are a few exceptions, to be sure. Minority teachers tend to teach in schools with stronger reported principal leadership, but they also report that they have less control over school and classroom policy. However, for the vast majority of the comparisons, teachers with quite different individual characteristics report very similar climates in their schools.


On the other hand, at least one measurable characteristic of classroom environment does seem to make a difference for reported school climate. This is the average ability of the students in the teacher’s classes relative to other students in the same school. Table 3 shows that teachers’ ratings of school climate depend on the proportion of the students in their classes who are above the school average in ability. In most schools, regardless of the absolute ability of the student body, teachers who believe they are teaching the more talented students in the school report more positive school climates. The effects are largest for teacher morale and student behavior. While only about two-thirds of the teachers with mostly average or below-average students have high morale, over 80 percent of those teaching mostly above-average students have high morale. Similarly, only about one-third of those teaching mainly students at or below the school’s average report good student behavior, but more than one-half of those teaching mostly students above the school’s average report good student behavior.



As was noted earlier, the differences among teachers within schools in their ratings of high school climate generally are much larger than average differences between schools. While the between-school differences are relatively small, it still is important to account for them to the extent possible. Now let us consider a series of school characteristics that might be related to school climate. The factors examined are urbanicity, total high school enrollment, the proportion of disadvantaged students in the school, the proportion of minority (black and Hispanic) students in the school, the average academic ability of entering students relative to the national norm, and school sector (public or Catholic). The average academic ability of entering students is based on individual teacher reports; the proportions of minority and disadvantaged students and total high school enrollment derive from a school questionnaire administered in 1982.

In addition to the climate dimensions discussed earlier, there is another measure of school climate introduced at this point: goal consensus. Unlike the other measures, goal consensus is not based on aggregations of teacher responses to individual items, but rather represents a direct measure of a school-level characteristic, the average agreement among teachers in a school regarding the relative importance of various educational goals. Each responding teacher was asked to rank eight goals for students in order of importance: basic literacy skills; academic excellence, or mastery of the subject matter of the course; citizenship; specific occupational skills; good work habits and self-discipline; personal growth and fulfillment; human relations skills; and moral or religious values. Within each school, the consistency of different teachers’ ratings was examined. A statistic, Kendall’s coefficient of concordance, was calculated for each school. The statistic, which ranges from zero to one, can be thought of roughly as the average amount of agreement among all of the teachers in a school, where zero represents no agreement and one represents perfect agreement, on the importance rankings of the goals.

The coefficient of concordance indicates that there is not a great deal of consensus on goals among teachers within high schools. The mean value of the coefficient of concordance, averaged over the 450 schools with at least four responding teachers, is .36. Although some high schools have teachers who agree quite closely on the goals they are pursuing, most do not. If a high degree of goal consensus indicates a positive aspect of school climate, then the relatively low goal consensus in the sampled high schools represents a climate dimension where there is room for improvement.7

The relationships between school characteristics and high school climate, including goal consensus, are displayed in Table 4. The most striking correlate of school climate is the average academic ability of entering students.8 Teachers claiming their students to be much above average reported the highest levels of school climate, for each of the six climate dimensions. In contrast, teachers reporting that their school’s students were much below average reported very poor school climates. Among teachers in schools with much above average students, at least 73 percent reported positive school climates for each of the first five climate dimensions, and goal consensus of .51. Yet among teachers in schools with much below average students, the proportion of teachers reporting positive climates rises above 50 percent only for teacher morale, and is considerably below that figure for the other climate measures. The goal consensus in schools with much below average students is .32. The largest difference in climate between schools with highly able students and schools with less able students is in student behavior. Of the teachers reporting that their schools had extremely able students, over 80 percent indicated good student behavior. Yet among those teachers reporting that their schools had very poorly prepared students less than 20 percent indicated favorable levels of student behavior.


These results highlight an important issue in school—climate research: the link between school climate and academic outcomes. Previous research has simultaneously observed positive school climates (or “effective schools”) and high academic achievement and concluded that the former produced the latter. An opposing view sees high academic achievement as an enabling condition that permits the development of a positive school climate.9 With observations of climate and achievement at only one point in time, the most common research design in the climate literature, it is hard to tell which causes which. The results of this study do not directly address whether school climate can improve achievement. They suggest, however, that much of the association between school climate and academic performance may not be causal. Rather, it might simply reflect the fact that schools whose students have superior academic performance on entering are more likely to have both higher subsequent performance and a positive climate, without the benefit of administrative intervention.

Much of the rest of Table 4 also shows that the mix of students conditions the school climate. The proportions of economically disadvantaged and minority students in the school also are related to school climate. Higher proportions of minority students are associated with greater administrative leadership, but also with less teacher control over classroom and school policies and practices, and worse student behavior. In addition, goal consensus is highest in schools with no minority students, and lower in schools with higher proportions of minority youth. The relationships are even more consistent when students’ socioeconomic backgrounds are considered. Better climates are found in schools with no or very few disadvantaged youth. In contrast, high proportions of disadvantaged students are associated with poorer climates. This holds for each of the climate measures. The results relating student mix to climate are further evidence that school climates may be the products of factors beyond the control of most schools.

Other environmental factors also are related to school climate. School location is correlated with school climate. Urban, suburban, and rural schools have different climates. Suburban and rural schools look quite similar, with the exception that rural schools have lower levels of principal leadership. Urban schools, however, look quite different. Teachers in urban schools report less control over classroom and school policies, lower morale, more student disruption, and less consensus on goals. These data accord with what many see as a crisis in urban education, although it should be noted that suburban and rural schools do not look too much better on these same dimensions.

School size also is associated with school climate levels. Teachers in high schools with low total enrollments report significantly more control over classroom and school practices, greater cooperation among staff, better behaved students, and greater consensus on the school’s goals. Perhaps it is not surprising that they also claim better morale. In contrast, very large schools fare worse on these climate measures, with the sole exception of principal leadership, where large schools and small schools look very similar.

The last panel of Table 4 shows the climate reports of public and Catholic school teachers.10 Catholic school teachers rate their high schools more positively than do public school teachers on each dimension. By far the largest difference between teachers in public and Catholic schools is in their reports of student behavior. Almost three-quarters of the Catholic school teachers surveyed rated student behavior in a positive way, versus just under two-fifths of the public school teachers. The differences between public and Catholic schools in teacher control over policies and staff cooperation are less impressive, but nonetheless sizable, as the proportion of Catholic school teachers with positive scores for these two dimensions exceeds the public school proportion by 15 percent. While there is strong evidence that Catholic schools have more desirable climates than public schools, these data do not tell us why this is so. It is difficult to know how much of the climate differences between the two sectors to attribute to differences in the ways Catholic and public high schools operate, and how much to other differences between Catholic and public schools, particularly in the kinds of students they enroll. Catholic high school students typically come from more favorable socioeconomic backgrounds than do public high school students and the proportion of minority students is low.11 Moreover, there is good reason to believe that Catholic high schools enroll more able students than do public high schools.12 We have already seen that the mix of students’ racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and academic abilities is related to teacher reports of school climate.

Analyses not reported here suggest that about one-quarter to one-half of the differences between public and Catholic school climates is due to sector differences in the mix of students. At least some of the remaining differences between public and Catholic high school climates may be due to sector differences in school functioning, although these data do not specify the relevant differences. Catholic schools’ relative freedom from outside authorities and greater parental involvement may be especially important.13

While the residual sector differences are interesting, they tell only a part of the story. Compared to differences in climate associated with student composition, the sector differences are comparatively small. By far the strongest correlate of climate, for each of the climate dimensions considered, is the average academic ability of entering students relative to the national norm. School-to-school differences in student characteristics are the best predictors of the relatively small school-to-school differences in climate levels observed in this study.


While most studies of school climate have considered only elementary schools, this study has examined the climates of a national sample of high schools. The results described here have diverse implications. One possibility is that school climate may have a different meaning in secondary schools from that in elementary schools.14

There may be good reasons why school climate is a different construct in elementary schools than in secondary schools. Many of these stem from organizational differences between elementary and secondary schools. Two key organizational dimensions on which elementary schools and high schools differ are size and diversity. Secondary schools typically are larger and more complex organizations than elementary schools.15 School size has important implications for how principals function. In elementary schools, principals have frequent contact with teachers, and often act as instructional leaders. In contrast, secondary school principals typically have much less direct contact with teachers, as teachers in most schools are organized into departments having direct responsibility for instructional oversight. Secondary schools also often have an intermediate administrative apparatus (vice-principals, assistant principals, etc.) with diverse responsibilities for instruction, discipline, and student services. The organizational structure of elementary schools may make it easier for elementary school principals to function as instructional leaders. Administrative leadership in general may be more important to elementary school functioning than to high school functioning, since elementary school principals usually appear vested with more power than high school principals.

High schools are also much more heterogeneous than elementary schools, both the student bodies and the faculties of high schools being more variegated. It also is the case that secondary schools have more diverse goals than do elementary schools. For instance, while the goals of elementary schools are commonly understood to focus on basic literacy skills and socialization, many secondary schools strive to teach citizenship, work habits, personal growth, specific occupational skills, and moral values; to prepare students for college; and to impart basic skills to students. This diversity of goals makes it more difficult to achieve consensus on instructional priorities and school policies, two important attributes of the effective schools model.

Herriott and Firestone have argued that two common images of schools—“rational bureaucracy” versus “anarchy”—can be distinguished according to the levels of goal consensus and centralization of influence present in schools.16 The rational bureaucracy model presumes high levels of goal consensus and centralization of influence, while the anarchy model has low levels of goal consensus and centralization of influence. Herriott and Firestone found that elementary schools typically resemble the rational bureaucracy model, while secondary schools conform more to the anarchy model. The results presented here for secondary schools are consistent with those reported by Herriott and Firestone. High School and Beyond secondary schools are characterized by a relatively low amount of agreement among teachers within a school on the importance of various educational goals, and by teacher reports of substantial control over school policies and classroom activities.

It is premature to conclude that secondary school climates do not exist. The evidence is increasing, however, that the effective schools model of school climate, and its variants, does not apply very well to secondary schools. New models of school climate and school effectiveness in elementary and secondary schools need to take into account differences in organizational structure and function between elementary schools and high schools. Moreover, the results portrayed here sound a cautionary note on the potential for school climate to foster school improvement. First, in this sample differences between schools in teachers’ climate reports are not nearly as great as those within schools. Perhaps secondary school climates are not the global, undifferentiated attributes that previous school-climate research has suggested. One could even claim that the diversity of teacher responses within schools implies that high school climate, as measured by teacher reports, does not exist. This is not to say that there is no such thing as secondary school climate. Teachers are not the only informants of what goes on in high schools, and there is no assurance that the questions asked of them have tapped all of the important attributes of school climate. Nevertheless, the results are quite worrisome, as the climate dimensions rated by the sampled teachers are generally representative of the school-climate literature.

Second, school climate is strongly related to the environmental conditions of the school, especially student body composition. Positive school climates are more likely to occur in schools with academically talented and economically advantaged students. While this does not mean that positive school climates cannot exist in schools with poor, low-achieving students, it certainly suggests that the presence of certain kinds of students in a school may facilitate the development of a positive climate. What remains to be understood is how positive climates can be produced in schools with disadvantaged, poorly performing student bodies, and whether such climates can produce achievement, and not just reflect it.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 89 Number 4, 1988, p. 541-554
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 543, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 12:35:07 AM

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