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Monday, March 5, 2012

School Culture and .....well, everything!

Most school leaders regularly use data to guide their practice, and I am a strong proponent of this type of leadership. This blog is especially envious of those practitioners who are able to separate meaningful, useful evidence from what we like to call the "snake oil"....you know, the next best educational reforms supported by little research evidence but have some anecdotal support. Leaders who latch on to programs, strategies, or ideas that are not supported with research evidence run the risk of wasting too much time for the students who currently attend their schools to improve. Nevertheless, using data and research evidence as a guide to improve your school and/or district's primary measure of school achievement is a prudent approach to leading positive change. What if your data use, however, uncovers a toxic school and/or district culture as a major obstacle to improved student achievement? Well for starters, that was one extremely valuable analysis! Now comes the challenge of improving school and/or district culture, though.

Improving school culture is not an easy task, but neither is any worthwhile endeavor. In schools, it is much easier to point to a deficient teacher, an ineffective school or district leader, the bureaucracy as a machine to stifle innovation, or a program in need of revision as the cause of under performance. In our attempts to develop action plans to address deficiencies, we often try to reduce the potential cause to one or just a few variables. Although not always easy tasks, schools and districts can remove deficient teachers and ineffective leaders, restructure the bureaucracy, or modify programs. This reductionist approach, though, might prove fruitless, which might lead you to identify your school or district's toxic culture as the primary cause of this under performance.

Cultivating a culture of trust, professionalism, and autonomy is not a quick fix that can be accomplished with a short term action plan, but there is evidence that a culture based on these concepts is related with and predicts school outcomes and student achievement. Please join the discussion and share your thoughts for improving school and district culture, because as the evidence suggests, school culture influences everything.

6 comments:

  1. Excellent thoughts Sam- right on the money. Let's make sure we use data and solid research to guide our decisions. Otherwise we are using our kids as guinea pigs. A positive school culture correlates directly with a strong school, just as a negative school culture does a poorly run school. It is a lot like a family - core values and a loving environment create a happy family, while lack of love & no values create a dysfunctional one.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Bill. I agree with you, but I think many administrators often overlook the importance of school culture in their rush to solve a problem. The reductionist approach may not always be the correct one, especially if the leaders need to address school culture issues. Changing a program won't do much for under achievement if school/district culture doesn't embrace change.

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  2. You can't implement change without first addressing culture. I have found this out the hard way. The more I address relationships and the culture the easier it is to implement needed change.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Mike. I think many of us are in your shoes and learn the hard way. Thankfully, we can call this "experience!"

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  3. Just as there are numerous variables and components into making a school culture positive, there are likely just as many contributing to it becoming toxic. This means everyone must be willing to reflect and listen to others for change to occur. Too often we isolate data to pinpoint one area of concern or assign blame...that is not how school culture is transformed. No accountability = no change.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Joe. The key is to reflect, listen to various perspectives, and to discuss whether the current culture will allow an organization to achieve its vision. Too often these two concepts, vision and culture, are not aligned, and in fact, oppose each other. All members must be willing to be accountable to change the culture to move towards the vision, otherwise as you nicely point out, this change is unlikely to happen.

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