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We Could All Use a Lesson in Culture

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By Nancy Bolz, Ed.D, Chair of the Kansas Learning First Alliance (KLFA) and Director of AdvancED Kansas

There's so much educational conversation about accountability, but little about school culture. And I'm not talking about the fine arts, although that's a great thing in our schools. My first big lesson in school culture that left a lasting impression came in 1991 listening to Terrence Deal. He described it as "the way we do things around here."

I then had the fortunate opportunity to experience a culture in my educational leadership practicum — and did it ever symbolize dysfunctional culture! I was talked into a part-time teaching position on the Friday before school started. My afternoon orientation included a talk with the department head who literally said "this is the way we do things around here." I couldn't believe my ears. He proceeded to describe how they operate in what I can only describe as an almost nightmarish conversation. So you might ask, how was that a "fortunate" opportunity? And the answer would be that I learned about culture first hand, that and I prefer to look at my cup as half full, which has a tremendous impact on culture if you're the school leader!

As many of our schools are struggling to meet AYP, we can't help but wonder what sort of accountability measures our future holds or what silver bullets will be proposed to fix them. My guess is that few will be directly related to school culture. Symptoms of schools and educators being overwhelmed are common in our current system. I hear them on a regular basis when I visit schools and interact with educators. As Education Week reported on March 7th, "Teacher Job Satisfaction Hits a Low Point".

Dealing with change is stressful, and often dealing with the unknown during times of transition is even more stressful. As finances get tighter and the reauthorization of ESEA drags on (keeping AYP stampeding towards the 100% ravine of failure, while approved waivers create temporary measures), the pot is brewing for tension to be high. In fact, almost every major aspect of education is subject to change on a grand scale, and each of us needs to be mindful of the impact of our cup level (and I'm not referring to your red Solo cup; that's a whole different culture!). So is your cup half full or half empty? Are you driven out of compliance and fear or to make a difference in the life of children? The latter is energizing.

So what are all of these game changers that will either be an energizer or an energy zapper? Teacher evaluation tied to student performance, accountability measures, new professional learning standards, new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), every changing technology and its impact to customize education for each child, and of course limited school funding. There has been ample print on each, full of pros and cons. Yet amazingly, amidst all of these game changers, many schools continue to improve. How do they do it? I believe that their culture plays a critical role.

Numerous books and articles are available on culture (I'll let you do the search), but let's just take a practical look at the schools that are struggling...what I often notice is that they continue to struggle in spite of many efforts to "fix" them. Sure, demographics can play a big role in student achievement, and there's a high correlation between student achievement and things like socioeconomic status and other reported subgroups. However, many schools with those demographics that "should" struggle, somehow beat the odds and are schools of excellence. How do they do it? In my opinion, it's their attitude — their culture.

Look at everything that's been "done to" schools that are struggling to help them learn and facilitate the change process — critical aspects like setting a common direction and purpose, gathering data to analyze the school, setting goals with specific strategies — developing a plan, supporting the implementation of the strategies with professional learning opportunities, monitoring progress (the implementation of strategies as it relates to student performance), and making adjustments along the way. Having that knowledge and the resources to make it happen are essential to turn around a school, but if knowing how to engage in the continuous improvement process is THE critical variable, all of our schools would now be excelling. But they aren't!

AdvancED dedicated the Spring 2010 issue of the AdvancED Source to culture. As is true of many aspects of a quality school, leadership has a tremendous impact on culture. So maybe it's time to invest in a little culture development. But alas, that's not easily quantifiable...how's a good accountability system going to measure that?

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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