In the business world, it is well understood that “culture eats strategy (for lunch).” Culture is intrinsic to human social organizations and structures, including public schools, school systems and school districts. While anthropologists still argue about the meanings and definitions of culture in professional terms, sociologists and management theorists have a clear understanding of the principles of organizational culture. Educational researchers and advanced leaders have known about educational culture for decades.
Anyone who has started a school successfully knows that the key emphasis from the beginning must be creating a strong learning culture. Unthinking copying of a successful school even if faithful in every detail never produces a strong learning culture and usually fails. A positive learning culture comes from the top from school leadership, but must be consistently implemented throughout, with the core values, norms and expectations known to, practiced by and articulable by students, families and teachers. Experienced educators can immediately recognize a working educational culture – a good school – from others.
It is one thing to recognize the importance of establishing, maintaining and nurturing a learning culture in a new school. It is another to change the existing culture of a school. Everyone has seen the difference in pubic schools coming from the different quality and character of principals. There are limits, however, to the positive effects of highly competent principals in most schools in most school districts. Real educational reform must be based on cultural change.
In the Center’s work and in educational research there are several key components to establishing an effective learning culture:
1) Distributive, Inclusive Leadership: Numerous studies have pointed out that principals can support distributed leadership by “being explicit regarding their willingness to share leadership responsibilities with others and by empowering others to share in decision making regarding substantive issues.” This form of leadership and decision making leads to increased teacher trust and buy-in for change initiatives as well as increased student achievement ”
2) Trusting Relationships: In the first chapter of Improving Schools: Studies in Leadership and Culture, author Patrick Forsythe shares his research that a school culture which “has a high correlation of teacher trust of school leadership, peers, students and parents facilitates high academic achievement and positive outcomes”.
3) Positive, Caring Environment: In a 2005 Education Leadership article, Research Matters / Positive Culture in Urban Schools the authors cite, “School-based research and national survey data document the importance of connectedness. Students who believe that their teachers care about them perform better on tests.”
Cultural change led by principals in collaboration with teachers, students and the school community has substantial precedent and evidence in many schools and districts across the country. Any plans to make broad cultural change must take into account, however, the fact that most teachers, administrators and school districts are desensitized to new programs and claimed innovations that last only as long as their funding. Real change in the public schools must be permanent, i.e. cultural change.