Walk into any truly excellent school and you can feel it almost immediately — a calm, orderly atmosphere that hums with an exciting, vibrant sense of purposefulness just under the surface. Students carry themselves with poise and confidence. Teachers talk about their work with intensity and professionalism. And despite the sense of serious business at hand, both teachers and students seem happy and confident rather than stressed. Everyone seems to know who they are and why they are there, and children and staff treat each other with the respect due to full partners in an important enterprise.
Sociologists recognized the importance of school culture as early as the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that educational researchers began to draw direct links between the quality of a school’s climate and its educational outcomes. Harvard researcher Ron Edmonds, often regarded as the father of the “effective schools” movement, included “safe, orderly climate conducive to learning” on his influential list of school level factors associated with higher student achievement. “The school’s atmosphere is orderly without being rigid,” he observed, “quiet without being oppressive, and generally conducive to the instructional business at hand.”
Yet despite its importance, organizational culture is possibly the least discussed element in practical conversations about how to improve student achievement. Perhaps that is because factors such as strong leadership, close monitoring of student progress, a common and coherent curriculum, and teacher collaboration all seem like pieces of the puzzle that educators can directly affect. On the other hand, even the synonyms we use to describe a school’s culture — terms such as “atmosphere” and “climate” — make it sound more like an environmental condition than an educational one. And much like the weather, school culture seems to exist beyond direct human control.
But educators in highly effective schools, especially those that serve large populations of disadvantaged students, do not seem to regard the organizational culture as beyond their control. They talk about it and work on it as if it were a tool they can shape and wield to achieve outcomes they desire. Gaining a deep understanding of what a strong, positive organizational culture looks like and how it works can help educators become more thoughtful about developing one.
More than “safe and orderly”
Too often, educators interpret the effective schools research to mean that the school’s climate should be safe and orderly — and only safe and orderly. Few would argue that those attributes are unimportant. Beyond the ethical responsibility to provide children with safe surroundings, such conditions help protect instructional time from needless interruptions and distractions. But discussions of school climate that begin and end with classroom management and student discipline miss an important part of the puzzle. A truly positive school climate is not characterized simply by the absence of gangs, violence, or discipline problems, but also by the presence of a set of norms and values that focus everyone’s attention on what is most important and motivate them to work hard toward a common purpose.
Analyzing an extensive body of research on organizational culture, leadership and change experts Terrance Deal and Kent Peterson contend that “the culture of an enterprise plays the dominant role in exemplary performance.” They define school culture as an “underground flow of feelings and folkways [wending] its way within schools” in the form of vision and values, beliefs and assumptions, rituals and ceremonies, history and stories, and physical symbols.2
According to Deal and Peterson, research suggests that a strong, positive culture serves several beneficial functions, including the following:
- Fostering effort and productivity.
- Improving collegial and collaborative activities that in turn promote better communication and problem solving.
- Supporting successful change and improvement efforts.
- Building commitment and helping students and teachers identify with the school.
- Amplifying energy and motivation of staff members and students.
- Focusing attention and daily behavior on what is important and valued.3
Russell Hobby of Britain’s Hay Group suggests, “Viewed more positively, culture can also be the ultimate form of ‘capacity’— a reservoir of energy and wisdom to sustain motivation and co-operation, shape relationships and aspirations, and guide effective choices at every level of the school.”4
One useful concept for understanding how culture performs those functions comes from sociology. W.I. Thomas, a pioneer in the field, observed that individuals consider something he called “the definition of the situation” before they act.5 To take a very simple example, many people answer the telephone differently depending on whether they are in a professional or casual setting. Very young children impose their own self-centered definitions on most situations, but society gradually suggests or imposes other definitions.
Some schools allow individuals to decide their “definition of the situation” mdash; what the organization is about and how individuals should act in it. Effective schools, however, suggest a clear, common “definition of the situation” for all individuals, sending a constant stream of unambiguous signals to students and teachers about what their roles and responsibilities are. The school does that through its organizational culture.
In some high schools, for example, the organizational culture defines athletic success as paramount. In others, especially where peer cultures predominate, norms and values push social popularity as sacred. And in others, academic effort and excellence are revered or at least valued highly enough to compete for students’ attention amid many other claims on it.
The instructive role of school culture is not lost on effective leaders. John Capozzi, the principal of Elmont Memorial Junior-Senior High School near Queens, New York, explains, “In addition to [a] close emphasis on classroom instruction, we have what we call our ‘hidden curriculum,’ which develops personal relationships between faculty and students and deliberately works at developing character.”6 By identifying school culture as his “hidden curriculum,” Capozzi acknowledges that like the academic curriculum, the elements of school culture can be identified and taught. Elmont’s 2,000 students, most of whom are African American and Latino, produce impressive outcomes. Ninety-seven percent of entering ninth graders graduate on time with a regular diploma, and 88% of its 2005 graduates earned a prestigious Regents Diploma.7
At University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts, students begin learning the “culture curriculum” even before the first day of school. Entering seventh graders are required to attend a three-week August Academy. “It allows students a chance to meet their teachers, meet their peers, and experience school a full three weeks before the school year starts [and] provides them with a comfort level,” says Principal June Eressy. “But the most important thing is they get to understand the culture of the school. They get to understand that we are serious about education and that we are serious about them going to college. They need to start thinking about it now to get where they need to be.”8
Teachers at University Park’s August Academy accomplish that goal through a combination of overt messages and subtle lessons that emphasize not only academics but also the values and behaviors the school expects of students. “We work on interdisciplinary units during that time,” Eressy explains. “I wanted the kids to be reading a book they could finish in three weeks, because in my experience a lot of urban kids don’t finish what they start, so I want them to learn right from the get go: ‘You start it, you finish it.'”9
University Park establishes a “definition of the situation” that tells students they are capable young people who will work hard and go to college. The results are impressive. Although three quarters of University Park’s students are low income, compared with only about 30% statewide, 90% of the school’s 10th graders scored proficient or advanced on the Massachusetts mathematics assessment in 2005, beating a statewide 29% by a huge margin.10 And all of its students get accepted to college, with most going on to four-year institutions.11
Still, although many effective schools couple an ambitious academic ethos with warm, caring, and supportive relationships, Eressy warns that schools too often focus on nurturing alone. “There are too many schools that have succeeded in building warm and caring and nurturing places for kids but have failed to translate that into a culture of high expectations,” she says. “That doesn’t do the kids any good.”12 Research bears out her assertion. A large study of middle school climate involving 30,000 students in Chicago Public Schools found that social support has a positive effect on academic achievement but only when coupled with a climate of strong “academic press.”13
A school’s culture sends signals not only to students but also to staff. Teachers and school leaders also must work to build positive norms related to their own work. According to Robert Marzano, this part of a school’s culture has to do with professionalism and collegiality — whether teachers believe and act as if they can achieve positive outcomes for students and whether they support each other, working collaboratively to achieve common goals.14 In a study of social relations in Chicago elementary schools in the 1990s, Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider found that one powerful factor affecting school improvement was whether staff in the school trusted each other.15 Marzano advises schools to take a proactive approach to establishing a professional culture — defining norms and expectations clearly, creating governance procedures that give teachers an active role in decision making, and ensuring that teachers can engage in meaningful professional development focused on improving classroom instruction in the subjects they teach.16
Building a strong culture is not an overnight task. According to Bryk and Schneider, “Relational trust is not something that can be achieved simply through some workshop, retreat, or form of sensitivity training, although all of these can be helpful. Rather, relational trust is forged in daily social exchanges. Trust grows over time through exchanges where the expectations held for others are validated in action.”17 Creating and maintaining a strong culture — for students and teachers alike — also depends on their understanding of “the definition of the situation” defined earlier. “For relational trust to develop and be sustained,” say Byrk and Schneider, both staff and students “must be able to make sense of their work together in terms of what they understand as the primary purpose of the school: Why are we really here?”18
By: Craig D. Jerald
(Online at website: www.readingrockets.org )