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Positive school climates shown to narrow achievement gaps

USC researchers and colleagues in Israel find benefits to pupils of different socioeconomic backgrounds and those with stronger and weaker academic abilities

Positive School Climates
Positive school climates have been shown to narrow achievement gaps. (Photo/Chris Shinn)

Positive school climates contribute to academic achievement and can improve outcomes for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, according to a new study published Tuesday in Review of Educational Research, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

In a comprehensive analysis of research published since 2000, U.S. and Israeli researchers found substantial evidence that schools with positive climates can narrow achievement gaps among students of different socioeconomic backgrounds and between students with stronger and weaker academic abilities.

Broadly speaking, positive school climates are marked by a supportive, caring approach from teachers; a sense of safety from violence and bullying; student connectedness in school; and parental involvement.

Schools do matter and can do much to improve academic outcomes.

Ron Avi Astor

“Our analysis of more than 15 years’ worth of research shows that schools do matter and can do much to improve academic outcomes,” said study co-author Ron Avi Astor, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the USC Rossier School of Education. “Our findings suggest that by promoting a positive climate, schools can allow greater equality in educational opportunities, decrease socioeconomic inequalities and enable more social mobility.”

The analysis also found no correlation between socioeconomic status and perceptions of school climate. This suggests that schools serving students of lower socioeconomic status do not necessarily have poor climates and that positive climates can be nurtured in these schools.

“Positive school climate has the potential to break the negative influences that stem from poor socioeconomic backgrounds and to mitigate risk factors that threaten academic achievement,” said co-author Ruth Berkowitz, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Haifa in Israel. “Evidence-based interventions that support and improve school climate are critically important to efforts around the world to increase educational opportunity for disadvantaged students and schools.”

For their study, Berkowitz, Astor and study co-authors Hadass Moore of USC and Rami Benbenishty of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University analyzed 78 studies published between 2000 and 2015 that focused on the relationship between school or classroom climate, academic achievement, and socioeconomic status.

Definition and measurement

In their analysis, the authors also found great variation in the school climate definitions and measurements used by researchers, reflecting the absence of clear and uniform standards.

“This becomes very important with the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which focuses heavily on the climate and social and emotional tone of schools,” said Astor. “The U.S. Department of Education has a definition and instrument that is only somewhat aligned with the research and the scholars producing it.”

“There is a tangible, immediate need to construct a common definition and reliable climate measurements that can be translated into practice and policy guidelines,” Astor said. “In the absence of a clear and uniform definition and measurement of school climate, the ability of researchers and stakeholders to evaluate school climate growth over time is restricted.”

Rigorous research

In addition, the study authors made several recommendations to improve future research that would provide more definitive results and allow researchers to offer clear recommendations for policymakers and education practitioners.

They also recommended investigating an entire school community’s perceptions of school climate, including those of administrators and parents, and not just of students or teachers. In addition to allowing for more accurate evaluations of school climate, a multi-perspective approach would allow school communities to design their own climate improvement programs, tailor-made to their requirements and social and organizational characteristics, rather than importing external models that have proved effective elsewhere.

The authors also suggested examining the contribution of school climate to the arts, physical education, social and emotional learning, civics, vocational subjects, and other areas outside the core subjects of mathematics, language arts and science.

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