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The Critical Role of School Culture in Student Success (VcF) | Print |  E-mail
Voices for Children - Reports
The Critical Role of School Culture in Student Success
by David DeWit PhD, Christine McKee MA, Jane Fjeld MA, Kim Karioja MBA
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, December 2003

What role does the culture of a school play in student experience and performance? What factors promote a student's sense of belonging? A team of researchers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health led by Dr. David DeWit set out to explore these questions by surveying students from 22 Ontario high schools.

The authors found that school culture has a critical role to play in many aspects of student life and learning. While there is good news, there are also many areas in need of improvement. In this report, the authors discuss the findings, implications and possible next steps for developing healthy school communities.


Introduction

The social environment of the school is a key factor influencing the healthy development of young people.

Traditional programs that limit their focus to changing negative student attitudes and behaviour neglect the overlapping spheres of influence such as family, peer group, and community.

Programs are needed that aim to reduce or modify aspects of the social environment of the school that are hazardous to the health and well-being of young people. The ‘Schools as Communities' perspective in which the school is seen as the centre of a community of influences upon students, provides such an approach.

This report presents the findings of a study conducted across 22 Ontario high schools exploring the perceptions of 2,400 grade 9 students. They were asked about school culture, their sense of school membership, mental health, academic performance, and behavioural problems. A school rater questionnaire was also used to capture various social and physical aspects of the school environment (e.g., wheelchair access, orderly classroom changes, policies on drug use, emphasis on student media, presence of awards, etc.). The report concludes with implications and next steps.

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The Schools as Communities Framework

According to this framework, students are unlikely to experience academic or behavioural problems if they are exposed to a school culture in which students and teachers respect, trust, and support one another and where students have a strong say in school decision-making matters.

Fewer problems are expected because socially cohesive and democratic school cultures instil in students a sense of school membership where they experience feelings of communal acceptance and belonging and attachment to school life.

Specifically, environmental conditions shape individual student feelings and attitudes which in turn exert a direct impact on their academic performance, mental health, and behavioural tendencies.

The "Schools as Communities" framework is built on the following qualities and principles:

* belonging
* equality
* fairness
* respect
* caring
* cooperation
* trust
* recognition
* shared beliefs and values


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The Study

This study collected student self-reports of perceptions of school culture, sense of school membership, mental health, academic performance, and behavioural problems from just over 2,400 grade 9 students attending 22 Ontario high schools.


The total surveyed was 3,265 students, with a response rate of 74 percent. Student self-reports were collected in the fall of 1999, when the students were entering Grade 9, the spring of 2000, as they were leaving Grade 9, and the fall of 2000, when the same students were starting Grade 10. Within each school and at each time point, student self-reports were supplemented with environmental assessments of school climate completed independently by two raters.

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Key Findings

1. In general, the majority of students in our sample perceived the culture of their school in favourable terms.

* Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed felt that teachers listen to and value student ideas and that students trust one another.

* Between two-thirds and three-quarters reported that teachers want students to understand their work, not just memorize it, and that teachers believe all students can learn.

* Most students rejected statements that teachers only care about the smart kids or that the school has given up on some of its students.

2. Most students felt a strong sense of school membership based on feelings of acceptance and belonging and teacher and classmate support.

* Between half and two-thirds of students agreed with statements that they were accepted and respected by others at school, and indicated a high level of support from their teachers in terms of respect, acceptance and caring, and availability as close confidants.

* The vast majority of students disagreed with statements that they were uncared for or rejected by their classmates.

3. Various aspects of school life are in need of improvement.

* Only one in every three students was in agreement or strong agreement that teachers and students trust one another.

* About one-third of students felt that teachers give special privileges or treatment to kids who get good grades.

* Less than half of the students believed that other students at the school were academically oriented.

* Many students were strongly dissatisfied with the level of disorder at their school: over half of those surveyed felt that alcohol and drug use, truancy, and verbal abuse were serious problems.

* Only one in every five students reported feeling close to their teachers.

* Moreover, only one-third of all students reported that other students took their opinions seriously or that they were included in school activities.

* Only a fifth of students had been involved in extra-curricular activities at school in the four weeks leading up to the survey.

4. Positive endorsements of school culture and individual feelings of school belonging and teacher and classmate support declined over time.

* Between the first survey, at the beginning of Grade 9, and the last, at the beginning of Grade 10, the percentage of students reporting warm, trusting, and respectful relations among students and between students and teachers at their school declined by 10 and 20 percent respectively.

* Most notable was a 20 percent decline in the overall percentage of students (between the first and last surveys) who agreed with statements that teachers emphasize understanding and mastery of subject matter when evaluating student performance and a corresponding increase in the percentage that reported teacher emphasis on competition and relative ability (i.e., that teachers give preferential treatment to kids who get good grades, or praise or care about smart kids only).

5. Positive school culture is linked to student sense of membership.

* Students exposed to a positive school culture also reported a strong sense of school membership in the form of feelings of teacher and classmate support.

6. Positive school culture is linked to academic and behavioural outcomes

* Students who perceived the culture of their school in positive terms (relative to those who did not) were more likely to perform well academically, display fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, and report fewer incidents of in-school problem behaviour (e.g., truancy, disciplinary referrals).

* Those reporting a strong sense of school membership were in turn less likely to report academic and behavioural difficulties and poor mental health.

7. Social and physical aspects of schools affect student outcomes

* Results from the school rater questionnaire revealed that schools assessed as high on appreciation and recognition of student achievement and promotion of student activities experienced fewer student disciplinary referrals and fewer symptoms of student oppositional-defiance disorder.

* Moreover, fewer incidents of disciplinary referrals and victimization occurred in schools ranked high on student sense of school membership (primarily teacher support).

8. Most of the variations in student outcomes occur within a school, rather than between schools.

* Results from the school rater questionnaire revealed that most of the variation in student outcomes (e.g., drug use, disciplinary referrals, incidents of in-school victimization, symptoms of oppositional-defiance disorder and academic performance) occurred within a school, not between schools. Differences in student levels of drug use, for example, were largely due to differences in use among students attending the same school.

* Between 5 and 10 percent of the variation did occur between schools.

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Implications

Several implications for new program and policy development arise from these findings and are consistent with other work:

1. Schools are encouraged to introduce or strengthen existing programs that provide students and teachers with opportunities to meet and interact with one another on an informal basis.

2. Schools are encouraged to provide students with access to resources and activities that hold potential for promoting positive peer bonding (e.g., school buddies programs, extra-curricular activities, school clubs).

3. Schools should strengthen policies and programs that promote high academic expectations for their students, such as:

• a unified system of rewards for recognizing student achievement and improvement

• peer tutoring

• more regular and intensive communication between parents, teachers and principals regarding academic requirements and student progress

• efforts to involve parents in their children's homework

• partnership programs with universities and colleges

4. Schools should strengthen learning goals that place more emphasis on mastery and understanding of subject matter and less emphasis on competition and relative ability in the evaluation of student performance.

5. To address negative behavioural norms, schools should introduce anti-bullying programs and increase their use of hall monitors. Anti-bullying programs may help to address the high levels of reported verbal abuse. Increased use of hall monitors can be an effective tool in preventing or reducing truancy, drug use on school premises and verbal abuse. Other problems that were mentioned by students, such as fighting, theft of personal property, and vandalism might also be addressed in this way.

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Next Steps

The next step for this project is to collaborate with external partners to develop a set of intervention components which will have a positive impact on school culture in order to enhance students' sense of school membership.

We have grouped key aspects of school culture into three broad conceptual categories:

1. The social atmosphere of the school (e.g., student relationships and student/teacher relationships)

2. School governance practices (e.g., level of parent involvement in school activities, perceptions of fair and equitable school rules)

3. The style of learning favoured by the school (i.e., school policies and practices that are task- focused stressing involvement, mastery, and understanding of the subject matter in the evaluation of student performance, as opposed to those that are ability-focused, stressing relative ability, social comparison and competition in the evaluation of student academic performance.)

Within each broad category, we are developing a specific set of goals with corresponding proposed intervention activities and programs. The intervention strategies will involve students, teachers, school administrators, parents and the broader community connected to the school.

We believe this next phase will be unique and important for this area of research for several reasons:


* Few programs deal with such a wide range of school and community-based programs and activities.

* The programs and activities derive from our "Schools as Communities" framework and thus are uniquely designed to enhance and complement one another. Each program and activity is mapped onto a set of specific objectives for the purpose of monitoring and evaluating change.

* Previous research has shown a steady decline in student feelings of belonging and acceptance over the transition from elementary to secondary school. This is the first ever set of collective interventions aimed at enhancing students' sense of school membership to be suggested for implementation and evaluation in a high school setting.

We will be submitting a proposal to external funding bodies to carry out pilots in a number of schools.
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Conclusion

Programs and policies aimed at improving the learning environment of students in grades nine and ten have the potential to protect students against a range of negative outcomes and at the same time foster warm, trusting and supportive relationships amongst students and teachers. These research findings further amplify the ways in which school environments need to pay attention and provide meaningful interventions that increase positive school membership for all students.


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References

For further information or a copy of the research report, please contact:

Dr. David DeWit
Jane Fjeld
Kim Karioja

David J. DeWit, Leslie Akst, Kathy Braun, Jennifer Jelley, Lorrie Lefebvre, Christine McKee, Barbara J. Rye, Martin Shain et al. 2002. Sense of School Membership: A Mediating Mechanism Linking Student Perceptions of School Culture with Academic and Behavioural Functioning (Baseline Data Report of the School Culture Project). Centre for Addiction & Mental Health.

Christine McKee, David J. DeWit et al. 2000. School Culture Project: Longitudinal Descriptive Report. Centre for Addiction & Mental Health.

School As Communities Theoretical Framework: Diagram (PDF)



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Resources and Links

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health: http://www.camh.net

Related CAMH Web Based Resources:

Educating Students about Drug Use and Abuse: http://sano.camh.net/curriculum

Ontario Student Drug Use Survey:
http://www.camh.net/research/population_life_course.html

Virtual Party: http://www.virtual-party.org/

Talking About Mental Illness
http://www.camh.net/mental_health/talking_about_mental_illness/


The Ontario Healthy Schools Coalition:

The Ontario Healthy Schools Coalition is an Ontario-wide, broad-based coalition, with members from health units, school boards, hospitals, mental health agencies, universities, health-related organizations, education-related organizations, parents and students. Their vision is that every child and young person in Ontario will have the opportunity to be educated in a ‘healthy school'.

For more information, please contact the Ontario Healthy Schools Coalition Co-Chairs: Carol MacDougall (416) 338-7864 or Barbara Ronson (416) 946-5659


Useful School Health Web Sites:

Australian Health Promoting School Association
http://www.hlth.qut.edu.au/ph/ahpsa/about

British Columbia Ministry for Children and Families "Healthy Schools Resource Guide" http://www.mcf.gov.bc.ca Search "Healthy Schools"

Canadian Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (CAHPERD) http://www.cahperd.ca

Canadian Association for School Health: http://www.safehealthyschools.org

European Network of Health Promoting Schools
http://www.euro.who.int/eprise/main/WHO/Progs/ENHPS/Home

Health Canada:
http://www.hc.sc.gc.ca/hppb/children/english
http://www.HealthCanada.ca/VoicesandChoices

Ontario Healthy Schools Coalition:
http://www.opha.on.ca under Healthy Schools Workgroup

The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto Comprehensive School Health Web Site
http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/~aanderson/csh/index.htm

World Health Organization: http://www.who.int Select "School Health"
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Author Bios

David J. Dewit (PhD) is a research scientist in the Social, Prevention and Health Policy Research Department at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (London) and an associate professor with the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Western Ontario. He has published several articles in epidemiological and health-related journals pertaining to substance use and mental health problems among young people. He also possesses a strong background in quantitative methods and statistics. He is a member of the editorial board for the Journal of Marriage and the Family.

Christine L. McKee (M.A. Sociology) is a research associate in the social, prevention and health policy research department at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (London). Christine has been employed at CAMH for the past two years and is currently the research associate for the strengthening families project.

Kim Karioja has been a CAMH employee for 14 years in the Thunder Bay Office. She holds an Master in Business Administration degree. Kim is an avid marathon runner and fanatical promoter of living a healthy lifestyle.

Jane Fjeld joined the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in 1998. She completed a 15-month secondment, from July 2001 to October 2002, with the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long term Care and since May 2002 she has assumed the newly created role of Provincial Youth Priority Manager for the Communications, Education and Community Health department at CAMH. Included in her work background is experience as a Probation & Parole Officer, being the Executive Director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa, and several years as the Executive Director of the Eastern Ontario Young Offenders Services. Jane holds a Masters degree in Criminology from the University of Ottawa.