School Climate: What It Is and Why It Matters

On Tuesday, January 10th, 2012, Solutions to the Dropout Crisis, the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network’s monthly radio Webcast series, hosted “School Climate: Why Is It Important?” Terry Pickeral, president of Cascade Educational Consultants, presented and explained research and practices addressing school climate. In literature and in practice, “school climate” is referenced by many names. “School culture,” “conditions for learning,” and “supportive learning environments,” are all terms used to refer to this same concept. Despite inconsistencies in terminology, in general, school climate can be defined as “the quality and character of school life.”[1] School climate reflects the norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching, learning, leadership practices, and organizational structures that comprise school environments. In examining research over the last thirty years, correlational and experimental findings have shown that positive school climate is associated with and/or predictive of:

  • Increased academic achievement;
  • Increased graduation rates;
  • Decreased disciplinary rates;
  • Increased effectiveness of risk prevention and health promotion efforts; and
  • Increased teacher retention rates.[1]

The four dimensions of school climate, as defined by the National School Climate Center (NSCC) and presented by Pickeral are listed below, along with each of their defining characteristics:

  • Safety
    • Rules and norms
    • Sense of physical safety
    • Sense of social-emotional safety
  • Teaching and Learning
    • Support for learning
    • Social emotional and civic learning
    • Leadership
  • Relationships
    • Respect for diversity
    • Social support – adults
    • Social support – students
    • School connectedness/engagement
    • Professional relations
  • External Environment
    • Physical surroundings [1]

When looking at school climate reform, the National School Climate Center recommends a five-stage school climate improvement model.

  1. Planning and preparation
  2. Evaluation of school climate
  3. Understanding results &  action planning
  4. Implementation
  5. Beginning cycle anew [1]

School climate reform, Pickeral argued, is most important for students who are “at risk” for dropping out of school as it creates a climate that “recognizes the social, emotional, ethical, and civic as well as intellectual needs and aspects of learning and teaching, … promot[es] student engagement and leadership, [as well as an] intrinsic motivation to learn and work together to create a safer, more supportive, engaging, helpfully challenging and harmonious school community.” [1] Pickeral presented NSCC data that correlates school climate with increased graduation rates. Although research is still limited in this area, researchers have found that an overlap exists between what is needed for creating and sustaining a positive school climate, and those that promote increased academic performance and graduation rates. To listen to Tuesday’s broadcast, watch presentation slides, and access related resources, visit the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network’s Web site.

[1]Pickeral, Terry. (Jan 10, 2012). School Climate: Why Is It Important? National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at Clemson University. Retrieved January 12, 2012, from

Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

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