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FINE Newsletter, Volume VI, Issue 5
Issue Topic: The Role of Organizations in Anywhere, Anytime Learning

Voices From the Field

Parents’ perceptions of their children’s schools can have profound effects on children’s attitudes about school and can influence whether and how parents get involved in their children’s education. Many parents decide where to live and send their children to school based, in part, on their perceptions of school climate. This practice becomes particularly salient at times of transition. Parents in the process of deciding which elementary school their preschooler should attend might visit their local school and ask themselves questions like, Will the school prepare my child academically? Will my child have supportive teachers? Will she feel that she belongs? Is the school prepared to serve my child? As a result, school leaders have an interest in ensuring that parents have a positive impression of their school communities in order to attract and retain students.

A critical first step for understanding, maintaining, or improving parental attitudes about a school is to measure them. For this reason, our research team developed and tested a survey tool1 that educators and parents can now use to accurately gauge parents’ perceptions of the climate of their child’s K–12 school. This tool is a survey scale—a collection of individual survey questions (sometimes called “items”) that all measure the same underlying concept and are analyzed together to improve measurement precision. In this article, we answer questions that educators often ask us about the new school climate survey scale.


Organizational climate refers to how individuals within an organizational setting perceive their environment and how they understand its formal and informal policies, practices, and procedures. When we speak about K–12 schools as organizations, we refer to “school climate.” School climate is generally thought of as “the quality and character of school life”2 and includes both the academic and social climate of the school. Students at schools with more-positive climates tend to do better academically, and these schools tend to have more-successful reform and improvement efforts.3


Many of the existing tools designed to measure this concept focus on student or teacher perceptions of school climate rather than on parental attitudes. These tools are likely inappropriate for use with parents who, unlike students and teachers, are rarely present in schools on a daily basis. Of the tools that are geared toward parents, many are quite lengthy or focus on one aspect of school climate, such as safety. In contrast, our new tool is short (seven questions) and easy to administer online or on paper.

  • To what extent do you think that children enjoy going to your child’s school? [Responses range from “Not at all” to “A tremendous amount.”]
  • How much does the school value the diversity of children’s backgrounds? [Responses range from “Not at all” to “A tremendous amount.”]
  • Overall, how much respect do you think the children at your child’s school have for the staff? [Responses range from “Almost no respect” to “A tremendous amount of respect.”]
  • How motivating are the classroom lessons at your child’s school? [Responses range from “Not at all motivating” to “Extremely motivating.”]
  • How well do administrators at your child’s school create a school environment that helps children learn? [Responses range from “Not well at all” to “Extremely well.”]
  • Overall, how much respect do you think the teachers at your child’s school have for the children? [Responses range from “Almost no respect” to “A tremendous amount of respect.”]
  • How fair or unfair is the school’s system of evaluating children? [Responses range from “Very unfair” to “Very fair.”]

The school climate scale was created as part of a larger survey designed to measure several facets of family─school relationships


Graphic showing Gehlbach and Brinkworth’s Six-Step Survey Design Process

Our scale was designed using a unique six-step process that incorporated feedback from experts in the fields of school climate and family–school relations as well as feedback from parents themselves. This process helped us ensure that we were asking the important questions about academic and social school climate, and that parents would easily understand the questions. For instance, researchers often use the term “student engagement” to describe an important element of a school’s academic climate. Our interviews revealed that parents are more likely to describe this concept as “classes that motivate students to learn.” As a result, we made a point to use the language that we heard parents use in our questions. 

Gehlbach and Brinkworth’s Six-Step Survey Design Process4

1. Literature Review. We first read the academic literature to generate a list of indicators based on previous school climate research.

2. Parent Interviews and Focus Groups. We talked to parents to understand how they conceive of academic and social school climate.

3. Synthesis.
We compared our list of research-based indicators to our interview-based list and prioritized those indicators that appeared on both for item development. We also noted differences in the terminology scholars and parents use to describe school climate.

4. Item Development.
We relied on best practices for survey item development to craft our questions. We used words that we heard parents use when talking about school climate. 

5. Expert Review.
Experts in the field of family─school relations and school climate provided feedback on whether our questions fully covered the concept of school climate and were appropriate for parents of all backgrounds with children in grades K─12.

6. Cognitive Pretesting.
To ensure parents understood our questions as we intended, we asked them to restate each question in their own words and talk aloud as they answered.

To develop the questions, we relied on best practices based on up-to-date survey-design research. For example, many surveys provide respondents with statements and ask them to rate their level of agreement or disagreement. In contrast, we wrote our items as questions and asked parents to select an answer choice. We did this because parents are much more accustomed to answering questions in their everyday lives than they are to rating their level of agreement to statements. In doing so, we avoided one potential area of confusion for parents in order to improve measurement accuracy.


The goal of testing the scale was to ensure that all of the questions measure the same underlying concept, and that the scale as a whole measures what it was designed to measure. Additionally, we wanted to examine whether parents used the full range of possible answer choices to make sure that our questions would allow users to distinguish between schools where parents perceived the climate to be positive versus those schools where parents perceived the climate to be negative.

To do this, we administered our proposed survey questions to three separate groups of respondents, each made up of more than 200 parents of school-age children. The groups of parents were drawn from SurveyMonkey’s panel of respondents from across the country, and answered the questions online through the SurveyMonkey website. There was diversity in terms of the racial, linguistic, economic, and educational characteristics of the participants. However, our average sample member was slightly more affluent and slightly less likely to speak a language other than English at home than the average American.5

We administered our new scale along with pre-existing survey scales designed to measure parental perceptions of schools to further show that our scale effectively measures parent perceptions of school climate. If it does, we would expect parents who scored high on our measure to also score high on these pre-existing measures.


  • The school climate scale appears to be functioning as intended. Responses to each question were positively associated with responses to the other questions. For example, parents who said that the teachers had a tremendous amount of respect for the students tended to also report that the classroom lessons were motivating. This finding suggested that all the questions measured a similar concept. Respondents used the full range of answer choices, and parent scores on our new climate measure were similar to their scores on pre-existing survey scales designed to assess parent attitudes about schools, providing further evidence that our scale does indeed measure what it was designed to measure.
  • Parent perceptions of academic and social climate were highly related. At the beginning of our survey design process, we set out to develop two separate subscales, one to measure academic climate and one to measure social climate. We expected that some schools would score differently on these two measures. For example, a parent might feel that the teachers and students at her child’s school are friendly and supportive but that the learning activities are weak. This parent would give a high rating of the school’s social climate but a lower rating of the school’s academic climate. To our surprise, we found that parents in our sample who gave a high rating on the social climate questions almost always gave a high rating on the school’s academic climate. This ultimately led us to create one single scale to measure overall school climate rather than two subscales. The resulting scale is short and convenient to use.  
  • Parents of younger children had more positive perceptions of school climate than parents of older children. Perhaps the most interesting finding was that parents of elementary-school children in our sample gave their children’s school climates better ratings than did parents of children in grade 6 and higher, on average. This finding was consistent with previous research on student perceptions of schools, suggesting that children tend to feel less positive toward their school’s climate as they leave elementary school.6 This finding gave us further confidence that our tool was working as we had hoped.


Schools and districts can now use this tool to 1) conduct a needs assessment, 2) measure change over time, or 3) evaluate an intervention. As part of a needs assessment, our survey scale can help schools identify their strengths and areas for improvement with regard to how parents perceive the school. For example, schools can look at how different groups of parents view the school climate. Second, schools may be interested to learn whether parent perceptions of the school have improved over time. Districts may want to know whether families have different views of schools as children age, transfer schools, or transition from one school to the next. When educators implement a new school improvement or parent outreach initiative, they will naturally want to know whether parent attitudes about the school improve as a result of the initiative, and this scale provides that information.

Finally, parents themselves can utilize this survey scale. As an example, parent organizing groups could use survey results as one piece of evidence of the need for school improvement efforts. A parents’ association could administer the survey and make the results available to inform incoming families about parent views on the school. This information would be particularly valuable for families with children making the important transition to a new school.

1 This article is based on: Schueler, B. E., Capotosto, L., Bahena, S., McIntyre, J., & Gehlbach, H. (2013). Measuring parent perceptions of school climate. Psychological Assessment, 26(1), 314–320. doi: 10.1037/a0034830

2 This quote is taken from Jonathan Cohen, of the National School Climate Center, and his colleagues (2009). They further argue that school climate is “based on patterns of people’s experiences of school life and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures” (p. 182). In: Cohen, J., McCabe, E., Michelli, N., & Pickeral, T. (2009). School climate: Research, policy, practice, and teacher education. Teachers College Record, 111(1),180–213.

3 Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., & Easton, J. Q. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

4 Gehlbach, H., & Brinkworth, M. E. (2011). Measure twice, cut down error: A process for enhancing the validity of survey scales. Review of General Psychology, 15(4), 380–387. doi: 10.1037/a0025704

5 We hope to replicate our findings with more representative samples in the future.

6 Roeser, R. W., & Eccles, J. S. (1998). Adolescents’ perceptions of middle school: Relation to longitudinal changes in academic and psychological adjustment. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 8(1), 123–158.
doi: 10.1207/s15327795jra0801_6

Beth Schueler is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and a member of the HGSE preK─12 parent survey project team, which is led by Principal Investigator Hunter Gehlbach and Co-Principal Investigators Karen Mapp and Richard Weissbourd.

This resource is part of the December FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family engagement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archives of past issues, please visit

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