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The Intersection Between the Common Core and School Culture

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By Gail Connelly, Executive Director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)

Communications scholar Marshall McLuhan once said, "We don't know who discovered water, but we know it wasn't the fish." Water shapes a fish's existence so profoundly — and, swimming right in the middle of it, the fish can't grasp how water impacts them. In education, a school's "water" is its culture, that complicated combination of shared values, norms, beliefs, and expectations. It manifests in actions as simple as the way a principal recognizes staff accomplishments, and as complex as the processes staff members use to mediate conflict or the ideas that shape student motivation.

School culture is hard to characterize and cultivate, but it's arguably the defining factor in school change. Shifting culture could prove to be the trickiest — but most essential — piece of today's most pressing education challenge: implementing the Common Core State Standards.

Schools in most states across the country spent the last school year dipping a toe into the Common Core, learning about the new benchmarks, mapping curricula to uncover gaps in learning, and reshuffling schedules to facilitate discussion of the standards. But if last year, for many districts, involved wading in the shallow end of the pool, this year schools will need to fully dive in. Principals and teachers have a demanding road ahead of them, as they prepare to accommodate new assessments and work with districts to solidify curricula. But despite the myriad challenges, the principals we've talked to are looking forward to the future. Their buzzwords? Collaboration, innovation, and reflection.

"I am pleased that the Core asks us to reflect on our expectations and ask, 'Is this enough to adequately prepare students for the rapidly changing world?'" said one principal we interviewed for Principal magazine.

Expectations and a cohesive vision for student learning are two pillars of school culture. Each teacher in a school nurtures his or her own classroom culture first. The culture of a school is the sum of a staff's collective beliefs and attitudes, and it shapes individual and group behavior. It's not surprising that studies have linked positive school culture to higher student motivation and greater staff cohesion and satisfaction. Studies have also clearly pointed to the principal as the key to a flourishing school culture. Returning to the fish analogy, principals, as leaders, can step out of the water to see it clearly. Great principals develop the vision to sense a school's culture — spot the fish in the pool, and help them learn about the climate they're in and what they can do to change it.

What kind of shift in school culture needs to happen to accommodate the Common Core? First, to prepare teachers for the major changes in teaching that will come as a result of the standards, principals must build a culture of trust. This doesn't happen overnight, but through frequent, consistent conversations, a well-communicated project timeline, and shared decision-making. Second, collaboration is absolutely crucial. Principals can be catalysts to build ties between teachers, literacy coaches, and technology specialists. They can organize PLCs, cross-curricular and vertical teams, and discussions on math and literacy that include non-tested subject teachers of art and physical education. Leaders can distribute responsibilities, such as tapping expert teachers to help lead professional development.

If there's one thing I know many principals do exceptionally well, it's juggling multiple priorities. Implementing the standards involves a slew of moving parts, and every educator has a vital role to play. We're all swimming toward the same goal — schoolwide shifts in learning and teaching that make the most of the new standards. The key to unlocking the full potential of the Common Core is for school leaders to take a step back from the laborious work of implementation and examine the ways bolstering school culture can facilitate lasting, meaningful change. As we swim the distance, principals must continue to think about the culture we cultivate and share.

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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