New Leaders for New Schools
Living Codes of Conduct
In a series of columns in ASCD Express, the cofounder of New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit for education reform, shares promising practices in principal leadership for improving some of the nation's most challenged urban schools.
A principal's approach to student behavior is an essential part of a school's culture that is felt by every student and teacher every day. When educators from New Leaders for New Schools visited more than 60 schools to develop the Urban Excellence Framework, they found that virtually all schools making gains in academic achievement regarded student behavior as part of a broader "code of conduct." This approach is different from traditional discipline-oriented systems in several important ways.
First and foremost, the code of conduct strikes a careful balance between the positive and the punitive. It emphasizes expectations for being a successful student and community member, while also outlining things that members of the school community do not do. There are specific rewards and consequences, and these are always clearly linked to promoting student learning. Even disciplinary moments do not supplant adult efforts to build meaningful personal relationships with students. In other words, adults never veer from the messages, "I am here to support you" and "I care for you," but they also consistently reinforce the choice and responsibility students have to fulfill the positive expectations of the school community.
Second, rapidly improving schools and their leaders recognize that adult actions set the tone for the school's culture and that consistency is key. When adults implement the code of conduct in the same way throughout the entire school building, students always know what is expected of them and what rewards and consequences follow from their behavior. They are therefore more likely to internalize the code of conduct and take ownership of it.
For faculty, a schoolwide approach means that teachers never have to stand on their own. Knowing they have communal support allows all teachers to spend more time focused on the core of their work—instructing students. This support is particularly helpful for new teachers who are just beginning to develop their classroom management skills. Moreover, consistent implementation is not just limited to the classroom. Staff members take collective responsibility for ensuring that every other student or adult they interact with throughout the day lives up to the school's norms and values. For all these reasons, developing staff ability to implement the code of conduct consistently may actually be of greater value than focusing on getting every detailed policy within the code perfect on the first try.
Third, principals do not assume that a written code of conduct will result in immediate changes in behavior for students or staff. Instead, they guide teachers in developing curriculum for social and emotional growth, which, like any content area, could involve full curricular maps with a scope and sequences, formative/summative assessments, lesson plans, and so forth that explicitly teach students about the school's expectations, as well as strategies for being a successful learner and community member.
For adults, the principal invests significantly in professional development, frequent classroom observations, and school structures and policies to ensure that every staff member has the shared experience of personal and collective ownership of the code of conduct, confidence in their ability to implement it, and adequate support from their peers and the school leader. This investment in staff development is crucial for achieving schoolwide consistency and creating a successful learning community.
Finally, in urgent turnaround situations, there is often an overwhelming sense of chaos associated with student conduct that creates an unsafe environment where teachers cannot teach and students cannot learn. In these cases, it is crucial that principals place high priority on working with teachers to quickly design a schoolwide code of conduct and then persevere in implementing it. From the first day of school, adults must consistently hold themselves and their students to the new standards. Catch phrases or other symbols may be helpful, but even more important is having structures in place so that students can trust adults to faithfully administer the new policies, rewards, and consequences—every single time and in every circumstance. This consistency ensures a safe environment and a new beginning, a clear departure from the school's dysfunctional past. Establishing order in this way is a first step toward all future efforts to improve the school's culture, learning, and teaching.
One rapidly improving school where all these elements of an adult and student code of conduct can be seen is ACORN Woodland Elementary in Oakland, Calif. At ACORN Woodland, more than 90 percent of students qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, 99 percent are students of color, and 60 percent are English language learners. During her four years as principal, New Leader Kimi Kean has seen substantial gains in the percentage of students reaching proficiency on California's state standards, some of the most rigorous in the nation: an increase of 45 percentage points in math and 30 in English language arts. She attributes a substantial portion of these gains to improvements in the school's culture, including its adult and student code of conduct.
Though staff collaborated to write the code of conduct, its initial implementation was inconsistent and teachers did not feel ownership for the behavior of students who were not their own. To combat this problem, Kean asked teachers to work in pairs to design a lesson on one of the school's nine core values: scholarship, integrity, tolerance, perseverance, compassion, leadership, communication, reflection, and inquiry. The pairs of teachers then taught their lesson to every class of students, providing both a valuable learning opportunity and a structure for building relationships between every adult and every student in the school.
Now, armed with examples from those lessons, students better understand the skills they need to not only meet behavioral expectations but also to become true leaders within the school. Teachers are more consistent about implementing rewards and consequences for conduct, and there is a greater sense of community and collective responsibility for the school.
At ACORN Woodland and at many other rapidly improving schools across the country, the code of conduct is intimately linked to other efforts to improve school culture and instruction, such as building student aspirations, encouraging student leadership, and deepening curricular and instructional rigor. The next issue's article will focus on how teachers use formative assessment data to identify specific student needs and to plan instruction that delivers the key cultural message of "I am here to support you."
Ben Fenton is a cofounder and chief strategy and knowledge officer for New Leaders for New Schools.