School Culture is the Foundation for School Improvement

As a new middle school principal, I learned a hard lesson.  After two years of working on all the pedagogical elements of the school, I discovered that school culture is where ultimately the ability to sustain improvement rests.

Many educational leadership books highlight the need for an articulated school vision, a safe learning environment, and  strong instructional strategies that include formative assessment, feedback, data analysis and intervention. We look at change within the structure of school as we know it.  Most of the improvement advice targets what teachers do in the classroom with curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  The changes most authors recommend are “high leverage” or “research based” strategies rather than a more foundational change in the school as a whole.

As we seek to improve struggling schools, we must consider that what we are currently doing in the school system is NOT working for the school’s students. We cannot continue to tweak curriculum, instruction, and assessment methods and hope to get any drastic improvement. We must go deeper into the change effort.

In reading S. Gruenert and T. Whitaker’s School Culture Rewired (ASCD, 2015), I found their insights reinforced the lessons I learned as a building leader of a Title One middle school.  The authors differentiate between culture, climate, morale and how beliefs, behaviors, and values contribute to the overall culture.  As a building principal, this differentiation is subtle but helps frame everyday practice.  They caution that changing a culture will take time, and they also state that changing a culture may upset the status quo. A leader has three choices when dealing with a culture that is not positively supporting student achievement: “they can ignore it, fight it, or use it.” (p27).  As a building principal, I did not know how to use the underlying elements of the culture to change it.  I did some things correctly, like building a system of shared leadership with my teachers and giving them time and a structure for collaborative discussions about their professional practice. Our teachers worked collaboratively to create a school mission and vision statement; these were revisited and revised every year as a building leadership team to make sure they still reflected our work.  We also referred to these statements during meetings as a guide for our efforts. But, there was so much more I could have done!

I know whenever we challenge the status quo the reaction is often fight or flight. School Culture Rewired offers several tools to help facilitate the foundational cultural change that will be necessary, if struggling schools are to improve.  The School Culture Typology Tool and the activities that accompany it can give a leader seeking to improve a school a means to start on the journey.  Their advice on building structures and procedures to change a culture gives hope in their caution that “culture will take many years to reflect new beliefs that guide behaviors…” (p16)


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