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Books in Translation

Creating, Cultivating, and Sustaining a Culture of Achievement
September 27, 2012 | Volume 7 | Issue 26
Table of Contents 

Focus on the Why of Learning Instead of the What

Willard Daggett

Creating a culture of achievement begins by building awareness about the skills and knowledge students need to be successful in the world beyond school.

The global marketplace is growing increasingly broad and competitive and will soon become more connected, more mutually interdependent, more diverse, and more demanding of a share of economic prosperity. The U.S. workplace is changing in terms of job opportunities, the work to be done, and how that work gets done.

If we really want to prepare our students for the future in which they will live and work, we need to raise the bar on what and how they learn in school. That means meeting higher standards in acquiring knowledge and in learning to apply that knowledge to solve real-world problems. With the bar raised, it's essential that schools create a culture that helps every stakeholder (student, teacher, parent) understand and buy into the path schools lay out to college and career.

In our work with thousands of schools across the nation, staff members at the International Center for Leadership in Education have found that highly successful schools take the time up front to create a clear understanding among students, parents, teachers, and the community as to why high standards are essential for all students. They build a shared awareness of how the world is changing and why we must therefore think differently about schools and learning.

High-performing schools we have studied have a culture that insists that all students can and must achieve high standards. These schools believe that passing the state tests is the minimum requirement of academic excellence, not the complete definition of it. In their cultures, proficiency on state tests is the point of departure, not the finish line.

In addition, while these schools believe that all students can learn, they also recognize that a wide variety of delivery and support systems must be in place to enable each student to achieve his potential. Furthermore, their culture depends on strong teacher-student relationships, which help ensure that no student falls through the cracks.

Three schools that have created, cultivated, and sustained a culture of achievement illustrate key principles and beliefs about continuous improvement; meeting the needs of the whole child; and cultivating rigor, relevance, and relationships.


Continuous Improvement

Brockton High School in Brockton, Mass., exemplifies a culture of continuous academic improvement. It is a large school with more than 4,200 students; of these, 72 percent are on free or reduced-price lunch, 74 percent are minority, and 50 percent speak a first language other than English. Brockton challenges teachers to increase their expectations for student achievement. Each department's steering committee reviews and revises curricula, programs, and definitions of high-quality student work. A literacy initiative reflects the schoolwide emphasis on identifying and addressing student needs. Literacy is integrated into all lessons across the grades and subjects. This approach has generated positive results on state tests and led to numerous state and national awards. The culture is nurturing, positive, and student-centered. It is also a supportive and stimulating environment for its teaching professionals.


Attention to the Whole Child

White Pine Middle School in Ely, Nev., believes that students first need to feel safe, accepted, and listened to. They also need to have positive and supportive relationships with adults in their school. If students' social needs are not met first, educators will not be able to address their academic needs adequately. Students at White Pine come from many different backgrounds and situations. Many of them need assistance with basic interpersonal skills, have been victims—or perpetrators—of bullying, lack motivation, and are products of the poverty cycle. The staff has made the conscious choice to be proactive and create a culture in which such obstacles do not become the dominating factors in students' lives. As a result, students have a positive attitude about school, feel safe, and have meaningful relationships with adults in the building. Students have a voice in their school. School leaders and staff believe their influence can counter enough of the negative variables in students' lives to make a difference and to sustain a culture of achievement.


Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships: Preparing for Excellence, Preparing for Life

Colton High School in Colton, Ore., states its mission clearly and simply: "A partnership of parent, students, school, and community dedicated to quality learning and the continual pursuit of excellence." Colton's culture builds on a rigorous and relevant curriculum that is aligned directly to academic standards in all core learning areas. Students are held to high expectations and are supported by a caring staff that provides challenging and relevant learning to prepare them for successful postsecondary experiences. Curriculum is individualized, and the administration supports staff in exploring creative and innovative strategies to meet individual needs and enhance student engagement and achievement. Strong relationships based on honest and open communication between staff and students are a hallmark of the school. No student is invisible, and teachers know their students and their families. Teachers are united in purpose and dedicated to doing what is best for students.

The efforts of the schools profiled above suggest that to create, cultivate, and sustain a culture of achievement, school leaders should do the following:

  • Focus on the needs of the students.
  • Start with a small group that shares common beliefs, attitudes, and goals, and gradually expand to include a broad cross-section of school community members.
  • Communicate a consistent, focused message.
  • Create an environment of trust. Trust is nurtured by relationships.
  • Listen to people's issues, fears, and concerns and make sure they know they are being heard.

But most of all—always focus on the needs of the students.

Willard Daggett is founder and chairman of the International Center for Leadership in Education in Albany, N.Y.


ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 26. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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