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Does Culture Eat Strategy for Lunch?

Stephanie Hirsh image
Stephanie Hirsh

We know quite a bit about the strategies that help educators improve and develop expertise over time. Over the long term, we have gathered evidence from research and the field about professional learning that led to changed practices for teachers and better results for students.

For example, numerous researchers have established the value of learning communities, and each week we hear about more districts creating time for learning communities to meet during the work day. We know from more than a decade of research sponsored by The Wallace Foundation and others that principals who act as instructional leaders (with all that entails) have a greater impact on advancing students and teachers. Both research and the field emphasize repeatedly the importance of collaboration and the value of peer learning. And while the research isn't clear on the impact of coaching, examples in the field lead us to believe in its usefulness.

But the bottom line is that each of these strategies is necessary, yet insufficient. The notion that "culture eats strategy for lunch," a quote most often attributed to Peter Drucker, has spurred plenty of conversation about the power of culture in an organization. Within our context, I believe a commitment to a culture of continuous improvement determines the success of professional learning.

What does a continuous improvement culture look like? In schools and systems that embrace a commitment to continuous improvement:

  • Everyone shares collective responsibility for the success of all students served by the school. That commitment to the success of the members of the school extends to its educators, particularly the newest teachers.
  • Leaders are models and advocates for learning. They participate as learners and they make clear that learning with others is not an optional activity.
  • Resources for professional learning are available, including time, coaches, and dollars. The protection of these resources is non negotiable during budget-setting time and in fiscal crises.
  • Data and its skillful use drive improvement and decision making at every level. Data are used to link professional learning to improvements in educator practices and student results.
  • Professional learning is grounded in evidence; aligned to individual, team, and system goals; driven by protocols, and personalized when necessary.
  • Educators have access to classroom-based support virtually and face to face.
  • Outcomes drive learning; priorities are narrowly set; and benchmarks and leading indicators guide improvements through the ongoing cycle of continuous improvement. There is accountability for implementation and the benchmarks help everyone involved monitor progress.

There are examples of such cultures of continuous improvement throughout the U.S. and beyond, but we need to see many more. In the U.S., for example, we saw sustained high performance in Long Beach, Calif., through just such a culture. We see it in the schools in Gwinnett County, Ga. Another great example thrives in Canada, where we see the schools in Ontario engaged in long-term improvement driven by a culture of continuous improvement at the highest level of the system (recently featured in the April issue of JSD). 

I'm on the lookout for more such examples. I want to hear about the results school systems are achieving through their commitment to continuous improvement. And I want to hear how they got there. If we're going to achieve transformations in schools, we need more than strategies. I'm convinced we need new cultures. 

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director, Learning Forward

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