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Lindahl, R. (February 2009). School Climate Differences between High-Performing and Low-Performing Schools that Serve High-Poverty Populations

Module by: National Council of Professors of Educational Administration. E-mail the author

Summary: Using data from the Take20 Alabama Teaching and Learning Conditions Survey, this study compared the organizational climate of two populations of Alabama elementary, middle, and junior high schools serving low-income students. One population contained those schools with excellent standardized test scores; the other contained the schools which had failed to meet their annual yearly progress goals. The results strongly supported the fact that the more successful schools had significantly more positive school climates.

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Note:

This manuscript has been peer-reviewed, accepted, and sanctioned by the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration (NCPEA) as a significant contribution to the scholarship and practice of education administration. This Volume 10, Number 1 and others are archived at the International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation (Supplemental Link). IAuthor: Ronald Lindahl, Professor, Alabama State University.

Introduction

In an effort to determine to what extent Alabama educators perceive that “their school has positive teaching conditions where teachers are supported and empowered” (Take20 Alabama faqs, 2008, n. p.), all public-school-based licensed educators in the state were requested to respond to the Take20 Alabama Teaching and Learning Conditions Survey. This survey instrument was developed, administered, and analyzed by the New Teacher Center at the University of California – Santa Cruz and LEARN North Carolina. Versions of this survey had previously been completed by over a quarter million educators in eight states (Take20 Alabama faqs, 2008). Nearly 30,000 (47.14%) Alabama educators responded during January and February, 2008 (Hirsch, Freitas, & Villar, 2008).

Consistent with the purpose of the Take20 survey, the majority of the items were related to school climate; the remainder focused on staff development needs and practices and on the recently instituted mentoring program for new teachers. This article focuses exclusively on the school climate items and compares educators’ responses from high-performing elementary, middle, and junior high schools serving high-poverty populations with similar grade level schools serving similar socio-economic populations but which failed to meet their Annual Yearly Progress goals for 2007-2008.

Schools in the Study Population

The high-performing schools studied were those schools which had been awarded the Alabama Torchbearer School designation since the 2004-2005 school year. To qualify as a Torchbearer School, the school must meet the following criteria:

  • At least 70% of the student population receives free or reduced price meals.
  • At least 70% of the students score at Level III or Level IV (Proficient) on all sections of the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test.
  • The average percentile stands above 50 in reading and in mathematics on the Stanford 10 assessment. (Schargel, Thacker, & Bell, 2007, p. 144)

Additionally, only Torchbearer Schools in which a minimum of 40% of the eligible educators completed the Take20 survey were included. Nineteen elementary, middle, and junior high schools met these criteria.

A comparison population of lower-performing elementary, middle, and junior high schools serving low-income students was selected using data from the Alabama Department of Education’s (ALSDE) web site (http://www.alasde.edu). First, the ALSDE’s list of schools that did not make Adequate Yearly Progress for school year 2007-2008 was used to determine which schools met this criterion. Then the ALSDE data base on those schools was consulted to identify which of those schools served populations in which 70% or more of the students qualified for free or reduce priced lunch. Statewide, a total of 27 schools met these criteria.

School Climate

Although there are many definitions and conceptual models of school climate, the one chosen as the basis for this analysis was developed by Tagiuri (1968). Tagiuri presented a model of organizational climate comprised of four factors: culture (psychosocial characteristics), ecology (physical and material elements), milieu (human social system elements), and social system (structural elements). Culture refers to such things as assumptions, values, norms, belief systems, history, heroes, myths, rituals, artifacts, and visible and audible behavior patterns. Ecology refers to such things as buildings and facilities, as well as technology used for communication, scheduling, and pedagogy. Social system elements include how instruction, administration, support services, decision making, planning, and formal structures are organized. Milieu focuses on the people in the organization, e.g., their skills, motivation, feelings, values, demographics, and leadership (Owens & Valesky, 2007).

Anderson (1982, p. 383) noted that, “In general, as researchers move into social system and culture dimensions and away from ecology and milieu, constructs become more abstract. Findings in turn are harder to compare because the variables and constructs are not necessarily operationalized in the same way.” Hoy and Tarter (1997) recommended that if the research purpose is to identify the underlying forces that motivate behavior in a school or the values and symbolism of the school, then a cultural approach is advised; if the study is to describe the actual behavior with the purpose of managing and changing it, then a climate approach is more appropriate. With both of these issues in mind, and recognizing that the purpose of this study is to describe the behaviors and their relationship to student performance, only the ecology, social system, and milieu factors from Tagiuri’s (1968) model were examined in this study. The Take20 survey contained ample items on all three factors.

Although some researchers question the use of perceptual data in research studies, in the case of school climate, it has usually been accepted as a direct indicator of normative climate (Anderson, 1982; Sarason, 1971). Consequently, the Take20 data were judged as adequate and appropriate for this study.

Research on School Climate and Student Performance

Considerable research has been conducted linking school climate to student performance. The overall conclusion of that research has been that climate exists as an essential element of successful schools (Bliss, Firestone, & Richards, 1991; Carter, 2000; Cruickshank, 1990; DuFour, 2000; DuFour & Eaker, 1996; Edmonds, 1979 a & b; Goddard, Tschannen-Moran, & Hoy, 2001; Hoy & Feldman, 1987; Hoy & Hannum, 1997; Klinger, 2000; Lezotte, 1991, 1992, 2001).

Feigenberg’s (2007) study found a moderate positive relationship between a healthy school climate and student reading achievement. Smith (2008) found a moderate positive relationship between school climate and English achievement, but failed to find any significant relationship between climate and mathematics achievement. Smith, Hoy, and Sweetland (2003) found a positive relationship between overall school climate and student achievement. However, they found that the climate element, academic emphasis, was even more highly related than the overall climate measure. This finding was not surprising, for, as Taylor (2008) pointed out, although climate is often studied as a single construct, further study is needed on how the various elements of climate relate to student performance.

For example, Taylor (2008) found reading achievement to be particularly related to student discipline and school safety. Pendergast (2007) found a weak, positive relationship between expectations for students and their achievement. Rutter, Mauhan, Mortimore, Ouston, and Smith (1979) and Brookover and Lezotte (1979) found a positive relationship between teacher morale and attendance and student performance.

McDill and Rigsby (1973), Rutter et al. (1979), and Weber (1971) found no relationship between the age of the school buildings and student achievement, attendance, or behavior. However, Rutter et al. and the 1980 Phi Delta Kappa study did find that the decoration and care of schools and classrooms were positively related to student achievement.

The relationships among administrators, faculty, and staff have also been found to be related to student achievement (Ellett & Walberg, 1979; New York State Department of Education, 1976). Feldvebel (1964), Hale (1965), and Miller (1968) found a negative relationship between principals’ assignment of paperwork to teachers and student achievement. Feldvebel, Maxwell (1967), and Miller found a positive relationship between principal consideration and student achievement. Ellet and Walberg, Rutter et al. (1979), and Xie (2008) found a positive relationship between teacher shared decision making and student achievement.

Goddard (2001) defined collective efficacy as the perceptions of teachers in a school that the faculty as a group can employ actions to increase student achievement. Goddard (2001), Goddard, Hoy, and Hoy (2000), and Tschannen-Moran and Barr (2004) found this element of climate related to increases in student achievement. Goddard also found that social networks with high trust and high academic engagement fostered high student achievement.

Taylor (2008) advocated examining the differential relationships climate may have with achievement among varied student populations. The present study focused on high-poverty student populations. Research on similar populations has found that students who live in poverty experience school differently from more affluent students (Caldas & Bankston, 1997; Comer, 2001; Griffith, 2002; Williams, 2003). However, students in high-minority and high-poverty schools can perform well (Hauser-Cram, Warfield, Stadler, & Sirin, 2005; Haynes, Gebreyesus, & Comer, 1993; Kannapel & Clements, 2005; Simon & Izumi, 2003). Students from elementary schools with positive climates progress to middle schools with greater success (Hauser-Cram et al.)

School climate has been found to be related to student achievement in high-poverty schools (Haynes et al., 1993). Carter (2000) reviewed 21 high-performing, high-poverty schools (nationwide) and found that, among other things, principals in these schools were free to decide whom to hire, principals held high expectations, and the pursuit of excellence was the norm. These school administrators and faculty used data for student diagnosis and goal setting. Hughes (1995) found that effective elementary schools serving high-poverty populations had identified instructional leaders who communicate openly and who are supportive of teachers and of the academic program. Towns, Cole-Henderson, and Serpell (2001) examined four urban schools serving low-income populations with high academic success. All four schools had strong principals, high expectations for achievement, monitored student progress, maintained discipline, and strong parental involvement. Krawczyk (2007) found a positive relationship between student academic performance and teacher perceptions of the overall school climate. However, this relationship did not hold for all subcategories of climate, e.g., neither the teacher learning environment nor the student learning environment nor the student social and physical environments showed a significant relationship to achievement. Smith (2008) found a moderate positive relationship between both collegial leadership and academic press and both English and math achievement in high-poverty elementary schools. Kannapel, Clements, Taylor, and Hibpshman (2005) concluded that in high-performing, high-poverty schools, the school climate factors that related to academic success are: high expectations for students, collaborative decision making between the teacher and the principal, caring staff and faculty, parent/teacher communication, strong faculty morale and work ethic, a strong academic and instructional focus, and coordinated staffing strategies.

Fortunately, the Take 20 survey contained items specific to all issues highlighted in this review of the knowledge base on school climate. The study’s exclusive focus on schools serving low-income students met Taylor’s (2008) recommendation that school climate be examined in relation to specific student populations.

Analysis of the Data

Because the schools in both groups represent the population, not a sample, of the eligible schools for that group, only descriptive statistics were necessary for the data analysis. Percentages of responses in each response category for each item provide clear and easy insight into the data.

Consistent with Taylor’s (2008) recommendation to look at specific climate factors rather than only at overall school climate scores, Tables 1 through 3 present the distributions of responses for the school-climate-related questions on the Take20 survey. For all tables, the response keys are identical: STA=Strongly Agree, SA=Somewhat Agree, NA/ND= Neither Agree nor Disagree, SD=Somewhat Disagree, and STD=Strongly Disagree. For many of the items of the survey, the greatest difference between the responses of teachers in Torchbearer Schools and those of their peers in Comparison Schools was the percentage of individuals who responded Strongly Agree; Torchbearer Schools teachers led this category on almost all items.

In order to look at each of Tagiuri’s (1968) three factors as entities, means and standard deviations were calculated by summing the responses to all items for each standard. Five points were assigned to each Strongly Agree response, four points to each Somewhat Agree response, three points to each Neither Agree nor Disagree response, two points to each Somewhat Disagree response, and one point to each Strongly Disagree response. The school was the primary unit of analysis; however, the results for the Torchbearer Schools were averaged, as were those of the schools in the Comparison Schools group and those in the full, statewide population. These means and standard deviations were then used in the calculation of effect sizes (Cohen’s D).

When interpreting data from population studies, it is important to note that whatever differences are demonstrated are real differences, not differences that could be attributable to sampling error. Consequently, the reader/interpreter of the data must give particularly careful attention to the practical significance of those differences. This is a judgment that is best made by educators who understand school environments and school climate issues well.

Ecology

Among the items related to ecology (Table 1), the Torchbearer Schools teachers presented more positive responses to most items. Although the Torchbearer Schools teachers’ responses were somewhat more positive than those of the Comparison Schools teachers, both sets of teachers were generally quite positive about their access to instructional materials and resources, their access to technology to support instruction, the physical environments of their classroom, their access to reliable communication technology; and their access to office equipment and supplies. Torchbearer Schools teachers also reported being shielded by school leadership from disruptions and working with colleagues who viewed time as a flexible resource; their Comparison Schools peers’ responses showed considerable less satisfaction in these areas. However, the two largest differences between the groups were in working in a safe school environment and working in a school that is clean and well maintained. For these items, respectively, 69% and 64% of the Torchbearer Schools teachers responded Strongly Agree, versus only 33% and 38% of the faculty from the Comparison Schools. The exception to Torchbearer Schools faculty responses being more positive was in relation to those items related to the amount of time available during the school day for instruction, working with other teachers, and non-instructional time. For these items, little difference was found between the two populations.

When the responses to the 14 ecology items were summed to form a pseudo-continuous variable, the mean for the Torchbearer Schools was 3.84 (SD=.65) compared to the Comparison Schools’ mean of 3.49 (SD=.44). This difference yielded a Cohen’s D of 0.63, generally considered to be a moderate effect size.

Milieu

In regard to the milieu factors (Table 2), again the Torchbearer Schools' teachers were consistently and considerably more positive about their school climate than were their Comparison Schools peers. The differences were more pronounced than those for the ecology factor.

Striking differences were found in the two groups’ responses to there being an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect in the school, with 78% of the Torchbearer Schools faculty responding Strongly Agree or Somewhat Agree, versus 62% of the faculty in the Comparison Schools. On the item, school leadership encourages the faculty to meet high performance standards, 76% of the faculty in the Torchbearer Schools responded Strongly Agree, compared to only 56% of the Comparison Schools faculty. Similarly, 85% of the Torchbearer Schools faculty responded Strongly Agree or Somewhat Agree to school leaders selecting the highest quality teachers available, versus only 66% of their Comparison Schools peers. Torchbearer Schools faculty (77% responded Strongly Agree) viewed their colleagues as being more committed to helping every student learn than did their Comparison Schools peers (49% responded Strongly Agree). Similar differences were found in the percentage of faculty in both groups of schools responding Strongly Agree to school leadership encouraging high performance standards for the faculty (76% versus 56%), the overall effectiveness of the school leadership (63% versus 39%), and the overall rating of the school as a good place to work and learn (74% versus 42%). The smallest differences were found in regard to the extent to which reasoned educational risk-taking is encouraged and supported. Only a slight majority in either group (56% and 54%) responded Strongly Agree or Somewhat Agree to this item.

Table 1

Ecology Elements

Table 1
Question Torchbearer Schools Responses (%)Comparison Schools Responses (%)
  STA SA NA/ND SD STD
Teachers have sufficient access to appropriate instructional materials and resources. 4934 3940 35 813 29
Teachers have sufficient access to technology that supports instruction, including computers, printers, software and internet access. 5136 3037 24 1115 58
The physical environment of classrooms in this school supports teaching and learning. 5530 3141 69 615 25
Efforts are made to minimize the amount of routine administrative paperwork required of teachers. 1311 3028 1313 2223 2225
Teachers and staff work in a school environment that is safe. 6933 2641 48 210 06
This school and its grounds are clean and well-maintained. 6438 2838 1519 1115 46
Teachers have sufficient access to a broad range of non-classroom-based professional personnel. 3727 3334 1519 1115 46
Teacher communication with parents, students and colleagues is supported by reliable communication technology, including phones, faxes, and email. 5133 3243 109 611 23
Teachers have sufficient access to office equipment and supplies such as copy machines, paper, markers, etc. 5236 3334 45 916 310
School leadership shields teachers from disruptions, allowing teachers to focus on educating students. 5431 2724 79 718 513
Teachers have adequate instructional time during the regular school work day to meet the educational needs of all students. 2120 4040 45 2221 1314
Teachers have adequate time during the regular school work day to work with their colleagues on issues related to teaching and learning. 109 2726 77 3032 2526
Educators in my school view time as a flexible resource for learning and modify schedules, when appropriate, to optimize learning for students and adults in the schools. 3422 3839 1015 1314 610
The non-instructional time provided for teachers in my school is sufficient. 1414 2629 1011 3025 2121

Table 2

Milieu Elements

Table 2
Question Torchbearer Schools Responses (%)Comparison Schools Responses (%)
  STA SA NA/ND SD STD
There is an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect within the school. 4829 3033 512 1216 611
School leadership encourages the faculty to meet high performance standards. 7656 1933 35 14 12
School leadership consistently enforces rules for student conduct. 5233 2628 810 915 714
Teachers receive feedback that can help them improve teaching. 5738 3037 713 47 25
School leadership selects the highest quality teachers available to fill faculty positions. 6135 2431 919 49 26
The faculty are committed to helping every student learn. 7749 1736 38 25 12
School leadership encourages the faculty to meet high performance standards. 7656 1933 35 14 12
Overall, the school leadership in my school is effective. 6339 2233 59 614 56
Overall, my school is a good place to work and learn. 7442 1732 410 411 25
Reasoned education risk-taking is encouraged and supported. 3123 2531 2828 1113 56

When the responses to the 10 milieu items were summed to form a pseudo-continuous variable, the mean for the Torchbearer Schools was 3.69 (SD=.45), compared to the Comparison Schools’ mean of 2.97 (SD=.30). This difference yielded a Cohen’s D of 1.88, a large effect size.

Social System

In regard to the social system elements (Table 3), again the Torchbearer Schools teachers viewed their school climates considerably more favorably than the comparison group on almost all items. The lone exception was that both groups provided very similar responses to the item, Teachers are encouraged to participate in professional leadership activities.

When the responses to the 13 social system items were summed to form a pseudo-continuous variable, the mean for the Torchbearer Schools was 3.26 (SD=.40) compared to the Comparison Schools’ mean of 2.81 (SD=.31). This difference yielded a Cohen’s D of 1.26, generally considered to be a large effect size.

Conclusions

Overall, the results are very consistent – teachers in the Torchbearer Schools perceived their school climates to be more positive than did the teachers in the Comparison Schools. This can readily been seen in the responses to the overarching climate item, Overall, my school is a good place to work and learn. Seventy-four percent of the Torchbearer Schools teachers responded Strongly Agree to this item, as compared to only 42% of the teachers in the Comparison Schools. The Take20 survey contained items on almost all of the elements previous researchers had found to be related to student performance. The findings of this study of elementary, middle, and junior high school teachers in Alabama public schools serving high-poverty populations strongly support the previous research linking positive school climates to increased student achievement.

Social System Elements

Table 3
Question Torchbearer Schools Responses (%)Comparison Schools Responses (%)
  STA SA NA/ND SD STD
School leadership facilitates the use of data to improve student learning. 7158 2131 36 13 12
Professional learning opportunities are driven by analysis of student learning data. 5841 2938 1013 45 02
Enhancing teacher knowledge and skills is a priority strategy for increasing student achievement at this school. 5842 3539 511 35 03
Professional learning opportunities are aligned with this school's continuous improvement plan. 5642 3438 913 16 02
Teachers are centrally involved in important educational decision making. 3224 4241 712 1514 510
Teachers are engaged in decisions about continuous school improvement. 4133 3739 911 1211 26
Teachers are trusted to make sound professional decisions about instruction. 4535 3237 59 1312 57
The broader community recognizes and respects teachers as professionals. 2918 3734 916 2022 511
Sufficient resources are available to allow teachers to pursue professional development activities. 5130 3139 916 710 25
Teachers are encouraged to reflect on their own practice. 4635 3350 1316 68 24
Opportunities are available for members of this community to contribute to this school’s success. 5537 2937 1016 57 23
Teachers are encouraged to participate in professional leadership activities. 4036 2933 2116 710 17
In this school, we take steps to solve problems. 5636 2935 712 710 17

Consistent with Taylor’s (2008) advice, examining the individual elements of school climate yielded greater insight than using aggregated climate indices. Torchbearer School teachers reported more positively on almost all climate elements contained in the Take20 survey. Of Tagiuri’s (1968) climate factors, the greatest difference between the more successful and less successful schools examined in this study were in the milieu factor. This demonstrates that the human elements of school climate are vital to the success of the school. As Owens and Valesky (2007) noted, the leadership of the school has a strong relationship with the school’s success, as do the teachers’ motivation, satisfaction, feelings, morale, and values. Although some of the differences between the climates of these two groups of schools may be attributable to a halo or Pygmalion effect following a school’s academic success, some of them may be attributable to causal links between school climate and that success. Consequently, building and maintaining a healthy school climate should be a priority for all school leaders.

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