California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

Create a climate for learning

School leaders play a critical role in establishing the school’s culture, which affects the learning climate for students. According to resilience research, “A positive school climate was the critical variable differentiating between schools with high and low rates of delinquency, behavioral disturbance, attendance, and academic attainment.1 Educational researcher Jon Saphier says that the educational leader has five ways to build and maintain such a school culture: “Say it; model it; protect it; organize it; reward it.”2

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Web page distinguishes between school climate and school culture. School climate refers “mostly to the school’s effects on students, while school culture refers more to the way teachers and other staff members work together.” In Shaping Culture: The School Leader’s Role, Terrence Deal and Kent Peterson describe culture as “. . . the underground stream of norms, values, beliefs, traditions, and rituals that have been built up over time as people work together, solve problems, and confront challenges.”3

In a 2003 study by the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), culture—or “. . . the extent to which the principal fosters shared beliefs and a sense of community and cooperation” is the most effective leadership practice according to magnitude of change in a school and in student achievement.4 According to the School Self-Study and Rating Rubric (DOC; 413KB; pp.9), effective middle schools are ones where there is a shared vision and where “someone with responsibility and authority holds the school-improvement enterprise together.”

Research on effective leadership shows the importance of building healthy relationships.

A school’s climate is the summation of all the positive and negative interactions among all people at the school in a given day. The tone of those interactions is largely shaped by the school’s culture—the unspoken norms, habits, and traditions that influence how people behave. To shape a socially intelligent culture, school leaders may need to change norms, starting with their own behavior.5

A study of California public schools that made significant gains in poor and minority student achievement found that API scores were higher in schools where the principals indicated that they acted “as managers of school improvement, driving the reform process and cultivating the school vision. In particular, they were more likely to embrace the state’s academic standards and to ensure classroom instruction was based on them.”6 The study went on to say that:

. . . When teachers and principals report that the principal communicates a clear vision for the school, sets high standards for student learning, and makes expectations clear to teachers for meeting academic achievement goals, the school is more likely to be high achieving. Equally important, better school performance seems to be associated with both teachers’ and principals’ reports that teachers at the school take responsibility for and are committed to improving student achievement.7

Probably the most important, and the most difficult, job of a middle grades learning leader is to change the prevailing culture of a school.

"The school’s culture dictates 'the way we do things around here.' Ultimately, a school’s culture has far more influence on life and learning in the school than the president, the state department of education, the superintendent, the local governing board, or even the principal, teachers, and parents can ever have. One cannot, of course, change a school culture alone. But one can provide forms of leadership that invite others to join in as observers of the old and architects and designers of the new. The effect must be to transform what we did last September into what we would like to do next September. The culture of a school is quite apparent to the newcomer."8

Setting a school culture often involves understanding and addressing a student counterculture. For example, many young adolescents face pressure to join gangs or to appear cool to disaffected, counterculture leaders. Gangs in poorer neighborhoods often target student groups such as the non-English speakers or immigrants for recruitment, causing a greater disconnect between those students and school.

Effective middle grades leaders find ways to engage these at-risk youths in the school culture. Some of these strategies include the following methods:

  • Engage negative student leaders in positive school leadership roles. For example, invite them to help plan a multicultural feast day that includes family members or a games day at lunch.

  • Host student forums (with translators if there is a large population of English learners) so they can discuss concerns, things they like about school, and things about school that bother them. Invite the students to propose events or strategies to remedy their concerns and to work with a faculty committee to implement changes.

  • Work with faculty teams to institute a wide variety of fun lunch activities that engage the entire student body.

  • Work with faculty teams to create many different awards and celebrations to honor many kinds of student achievement (in arts, sports, service, academics, etc.).

Other research focuses on the importance of a healthy adult culture at the school.

Hoy and Sabo (1997) found that student achievement increased in middle grades schools where teachers and administrators had stronger professional and emotional support among themselves. This suggests the possibility of some sort of trickle-down effect from such a climate. In addition, Lepper and Hodell (1989) found that when teachers relied on threats of punishment, middle grades students were less likely to be motivated, and their academic performance decreased. This suggests that a "communitarian" climate may be effective.9

Related Links

Principals—The Learning Leaders

Lead professional learning

1 Resilience & Youth Development Module. Prepared by WestEd and the Safe and Healthy Kids Program Office, California Department of Education, 2002, 12.
2 Jon Saphier, How to Make Supervision and Evaluation Really Work: Supervision and Evaluation in the Context of Strengthening School Culture. Carlyle, Mass.: Research for Better Teaching, Inc., 1993.
3 T. E. Deal and K. D. Peterson, Shaping School Culture: The School Leader’s Role. San Francisco: Calif.: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999.
4 Tim Waters, Robert J. Marzano, and Brian McNulty, Balanced Leadership: What 30 Years of Research Tells Us about the Effect of Leadership on Student Achievement (PDF; Outside Source). Denver, Colo.: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), 2003, 9-12.
5 Daniel Goleman, The Socially Intelligent Leade, Educational Leadership, Vol. 64, No. 1 (September 2006), 76-81.
6 Similar Students, Different Results: Why Do Some Schools Do Better? (Outside Source), Mountain View, Calif.: Prepared by EdSource, 2005, 20.
7 Ibid., 18.
8 Roland S. Barth, “The Culture Builder," Educational Leadership, Vol. 59 No. 8 (May 2002), 6-11.
9 Academic Achievement in the Middle Grades: What Does the Research Tell Us? (Outside Source), Atlanta, Ga.: Southern Regional Education Board, 2003, 5.

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