Kids go to school to study math, science, literature, and other subjects. But at least since the time of Plato, philosophers and others have highlighted the importance of educational institutions in shaping the values of students, who will be tomorrow’s parents, policymakers, and voters. Modern-day school principals are presumed to be important players at their institutions, but their influence on students has been unclear. A recent study suggests that their values do in fact tend to pervade the schools they oversee.
Most research on the influence of schools focuses on academic achievement, rather than the shaping of values, says Shaul Oreg, a psychologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and currently at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. In previous research, Oreg and collaborator Yair Berson, a psychologist from Bar-Ilan University, have also studied how the leader of a company helps shape the organization and influence stakeholders, often looking at the impacts of leaders on employees.
More recently, Oreg—a father, as well as an academic—and Berson turned their attention to schools. Students spend a large fraction of their day at school, and Oreg wanted to measure the effect of the school climate on personality. “We thought it would be interesting and important to see if school leadership has an impact on children.”
Oreg and Berson hypothesized that principals do influence the values of students by how they guide the climate of the school. To investigate the influence of principals, the researchers ran a large, survey-based study, collecting data from 252 school principals, 3,658 teachers, and 49,401 students in public schools in Israel over the course of two years. Oreg says they included Jewish schools, Arab schools, secular schools, and state religious schools in the study; roughly 79 percent of the participants were Jewish and 21 percent Arab, which matches the population distribution in Israel. The principals and students completed questionnaires about their values—validated in previous research—while the teachers reported on the school climate.
Over the course of the two-year study, in general, the values of the students grew closer to those of their principals, the psychologists reported recently in the journal Psychological Science. For example, they found that in schools run by conservative principals who engendered an atmosphere of stability, students tended to become more conservative and value conformist behavior – for example, placing a high priority on order, organization, and playing by the rules. Principals who valued openness and innovation ran schools with a climate of innovation where students were encouraged to develop their own ideas or find new ways to do their jobs.
Psychologist Anat Bardi says that beyond the influence of principals in a school, the new findings represent the first solid evidence that the climate of a school has an impact on the values of its students. “All the data before this were just assuming that the environment has an effect on values,” says Bardi, who researches personal values at the Royal Holloway University of London and did not contribute to the new study. “This study is doing something very new.”
Oreg notes that there may be other explanations for the findings that emerged from their study. For example, parents who have the money and ability to choose a school for their children potentially implicitly choose the values of the principal when they find an appealing school environment. However, additional analysis played down this possibility—the psychologists re-ran their tests taking socioeconomic status into account and found no difference in their results. Oreg says he’d also like to study the influence of teachers on their students’ values.
A better understanding of how principals in particular, and school environments in general, shape values may help improve the role of schools in preparing kids beyond academics. Oreg says he hopes parents and other education stakeholders—executives and policymakers, for example—pay close attention to the impact that a school environment has on students beyond grades, such as on their personalities and values.