Thursday, July 2, 2009


The issue of implementing significant change in our secondary schools is deeply tied into the existing culture that exists within our schools. I have spent several years thinking and discussing this issue with educators. I have come to the conclusion that much of the hard work for improving the teaching and learning conditions for students and teachers gets derailed or halted due to the culture that exists in schools. The good news is that a culture can be changed, so we do not have to feel that our work of improving student achievement is without hope.
I shared this document with my former superintendent who felt that it should be shared with all school leaders. The timing for sharing it was not right, but through this blog, I do believe that it can lead to conversations that can help all of us in our preparation for implementing change in our schools.

I know that if we offered the "silver bullet" for improving achievement for all students in our schools, we would have it rejected by many of our peers. The reason that this would happen are numerous, but the one that is most critical is that as secondary educators we have to believe that what is being offered, even the "silver bullet", must be known by us and we must in some way take ownership for its implementation. Unfortunately, we do not spend enough time building the ownership necessary for implementing any programs in our schools. As a result we have all seen the teachers and administrators that nod yes to accepting the mandate, but once they leave the meeting, they go back to their offices and classrooms, and practice business as usual.

So, how do we create the conditions for implementation of programs that have the best chance of helping our kids? We need to work on creating cultures in our school that I have identified as healthy. I am defining healthy in a very loose way on purpose. This definition requires that schools and districts develop the healthy school culture continuum and determine where each school is on that continuum.

What I am providing is a starting point for discussion as to what criteria should be considered by educators in determining where on the healthy culture continuum a school is. Below you will find the criteria for the two extremes of the continuum "healthy culture" and "unhealthy culture". I hope that we can begin discussions around this topic so that we can move all schools to the place where the implementation of best practices, strong programs, and local school ideas can easily be implemented with fidelity. Only this way can we hope to support the education of all students. I have developed similar cultural criterion for instruction and personalization which I will share in the future.

I hope that you find this interesting and stimulating. I hope you and your colleagues either through this blog or at your work sites have conversations based on the idea of building or sustaining a healthy culture in your school or district.

Healthy School Culture

  • Will support a variety of teaching and learning practices and strategies
  • Will support differentiated approaches to supporting student needs Faculty and staff accept responsibility for improving student achievement for all students
  • Anonymity of any student is unacceptable and prevented by guaranteeing that constructive relationships exist between all students and school staff
  • Shows signs of continuous improvement on multiple measures determined by school and district determined tools and discuss this data as a team or group
  • Will support a positive “school story” that can easily and constructively be shared with parents and community partners
  • School-based administrators and faculty have a strong, respectful, and cooperative working relationship and possess professional attitudes
  • Active involvement of parents and school staff exists in developing and implementing school plans
  • A safe and secure environment for students and staff is apparent and students feel comfortable and feel a connection to their school
  • Equity and access issues are resolved for all students, with no tracking of students in a formal or informal manner
  • Strategies, practices, and procedures are in place that support increased attendance, decrease in drop outs, decrease in discipline referrals, and increase in parent communication
  • A “college going culture” is in place and efforts to include all students occur
    Strong connection to career awareness, labor requirements (SCANS Report, and State CTE Framework), and internship opportunities provided for all students
  • School staff see themselves as continuous learners of educational pedagogy and practice
  • School staff members accept responsibility and ownership of student outcomes, both for their success and lack of success

Unhealthy School Culture:

  • Requires significant readiness preparation for implementing improved teaching and learning practices and strategies
  • Requires changes in staff attitudes in order to support differentiated approaches to supporting student needs
  • Many students remain anonymous and do not feel cared for by school staff
  • Lacks signs of continuous improvement using multiple measures determined by school and local and district
  • Unable to provide a positive “school story” that can easily and constructively be shared with parents and community partners
  • Administrators and faculty have a poor working relationship with little trust or respect existing between the groups and little sign of educational professionalism apparent
  • School plans written, but without the involvement of parents and staff and with low levels of staff knowledge or implementation
  • The school environment feels unsafe and uncomfortable for students and adults, and students do not feel connected to this school
  • Due to a lack of thoughtful review of equity and access issues, significant informal tracking is occurring within the school
  • Strategies, practices, and procedures are not in place that lead to improved academic success for all students
  • A “college going culture” exists for selective students only
  • Few career preparedness opportunities exist other than for those students who choose to seek them out
  • Staff does not act as continuous learners of educational pedagogy and practice
  • School staff does not show a sense of personal responsibility for the successes or failures of the students


Daniel said...

As I reflect on school culture, I am reminded of North Korea. Everybody knows this by now. It is just not happening in North Korea. The country is experiencing all kinds of (fill in the blank) problems. Yet NK's leaders are refusing to accept the reality that their country is not healthy. Sure they have what the article above describes as ownership, but exactly do they own? They are so convinced that they are doing so well that they brandish nuclear weapons at will to prove that point. Despite the progress, for better or worst, that the rest of the world have accomplished, they will have none of it. None. A comparison with its neighbor to the south is more than glaring.

Unfortunately, there are times when schools are like NK. Reform, change, adjustments, (whatever it is called) are often not welcome in schools. This is particularly true, as in the case of NK, when the culture is not healthy. Count on the culture to do everything possible to preserve itself no matter how sick it may be. Its guardians will blindly protect its existence and it will not be out of the ordinary for them to undermine any efforts to bring about change. Schools with unhealthy cultures will often showcase bits and pieces of unsustainable "success" to prove its point while ignoring the fact that real and drastic change must occur. Oh, as far as comparing this school with that school, whether talking about things like best practices and instructional strategies, don't even dare.

The article above would be best used as stated, "a starting point for discussion." Without it, reformers will repeat past practices of implementing yet another program without taking into account existing conditions. Once again, they will be doomed to fail.

I mean, who would want to be in a 747 with a pilot whose flight plan is to fly without checking the weather?

Larry the Webmaster said...

What an interesting analogy. I would not have thought about it that way, but you are correct. Sometimes when you live in chaos, you don't recognize the chaos because it seems like the normal way to live. I am sure that is true in many of our schools, so we need some tool that says to school staff, "here is where you really are", not "we are where we think we are". Thanks, Daniel