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March 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 6

Research Matters / Beyond the Movie Montage

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School culture evolves gradually—and not always smoothly.

LeadershipSchool Culture
A few years ago, while I was talking with principals in Connecticut about research on school culture—the "secret sauce" of school improvement—one principal posed a question that revealed why many educators dislike, or at least disregard, research: Where should leaders start in trying to improve a school culture?
As far back as the 1970s, researchers (Edmonds, 1979) reported that effective schools have better organizational cultures. My organization, McREL, confirmed those findings in 2005 when we discovered that what distinguished high-performing, high-poverty schools from low-performing ones was a culture characterized by a clear mission and goals, a press for achievement, and teacher involvement in decision making. A study of 400 schools in Chicago (Bryk & Schneider, 2003) found "relational trust"—leaders and teachers treating one another with respect and integrity—to be a strong predictor of school success. And Hoy and colleagues (2006) found that "academic optimism" (a press for achievement and teachers' beliefs in one another's abilities) is as strongly correlated with student success as is student socioeconomic status.
So, school culture is important. Yet these findings are correlational, so we cannot say with certainty that fixing culture leads to better performance—it could be the other way around (better performance begets better culture), or symbiotic. We know the endpoint—what a good school culture looks like—but we aren't as clear about how cultures improve or where to start improving them. That Connecticut principal, for instance, had inherited a school full of disengaged, cliquish teachers. Should he really start by turning decision making over to them, as research suggests?

Don't Focus Solely on Culture

This leader's question sent me back to the research base. My first big takeaway: Focusing only on school culture, without doing the actual work of improving teaching and learning, is like throwing a pizza party to boost a losing sports team's morale; nice, but misses the point.
That doesn't mean leaders should focus only on teaching and learning and ignore culture; to the contrary, they should focus on creating a culture of teaching and learning. A survey of 4,500 teachers (TNTP, 2012) found that the best teachers crave exactly that. In schools with better achievement and teacher retention, teachers were more apt to respond positively to statements like, "Expectations for effective teaching are clearly defined at my school" and "My school is committed to improving my instructional practice."

One Step at a Time

My second observation was that a better culture doesn't happen overnight, but evolves over time, passing through phases of development that look something like this:
  • Start with shared vision and values. People are more apt to change their habits when they see a deep purpose for the change. McREL (2005) found that teachers in high-performing, high-poverty schools were likelier to report their schools had a clear sense of purpose and press for achievement than teachers in lower-performing schools. So a better culture seems to start with creating a shared understanding of why people must work together.
  • Create quick wins. Seeing is believing, belief drives behavior, and behavior drives results. One way to spark this cognitive chain reaction is to ask people to try a small, manageable routine and show them the results. This creates mastery experiences, which can change collective attitudes and beliefs in schools (Goddard, Hoy, & Hoy, 2004). Case studies of turnaround schools report that most seek "quick wins" that help people proceed to larger challenges (Brinson, Kowal, & Hassell, 2008).
  • Commit to consistency. Studies of high-performing, high-poverty schools (Chenoweth & Theokas, 2011) found many succeeded with the same "off-the-shelf" reading or math programs that fell flat elsewhere. The difference? A commitment to consistency.
  • Encourage reflective expertise. After a few years of gains, many turnaround schools hit a performance plateau. This didn't happen in the 33 schools Chenoweth and Theokas profiled, probably because after a few years of growth, they pushed through their plateaus by recognizing the need to move from adoption to adaption. They made adjustments to adopted programs to ensure they worked well for all students. That was only possible because they'd evolved into yet another phase of school culture, one that embraces collegiality, collaboration, and use of data to improve teaching practices.
  • Unleash innovation. Eventually schools may enter a final phase of culture that supports ongoing, rapid-cycle innovation. Schools that create innovative learning experiences for students appear to have a highly evolved culture that embraces failing forward, taking chances, and learning from mistakes—arguably, the culmination of a shared vision, commitment to consistency, and learning to learn together.
Successful leaders will tell you their success was years in the making. Research, however, tends to turn all the messiness, trial and error, and anxieties of school change into a sort of movie montage that makes it all seem easy. Admittedly, describing phases of school culture development runs the same risk: turning the patience, iterations, and tough decisions into a simplistic narrative. Yet if there's one insight we might gain from the montage metaphor, it's that cultures are dynamic. Even dysfunctional cultures can evolve into something better with thoughtful leadership. I wish I'd shared this insight with that principal in Connecticut.
References

Brinson, D., Kowal, J., & Hassell, B. (2008). School turnarounds: Actions and results. Lincoln, IL: Center on Innovation & Improvement.

Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2003). Trust in schools: A core resource for school reform. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 40–45.

Chenoweth, K., & Theokas, C. (2011). Getting it done: Leading academic success in unexpected schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Edmonds, R. (1979). Effective schools for the urban poor. Educational Leadership, 37(1), 15–18, 20–24.

Goddard, R. D., Hoy, W. K., & Hoy, A. K. (2004). Collective efficacy beliefs: Theoretical developments, empirical evidence, and future directions. Educational Researcher, 33(3), 3–13.

Hoy, W. K., Tarter, C. J., & Hoy, A. W. (2006). Academic optimism of schools: A force for student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 43(3), 425–446.

McREL. (2005). McREL Insights: Schools that "beat the odds." Aurora, CO: Author.

TNTP. (2012). Greenhouse schools: How schools can build cultures where teachers and students thrive. Brooklyn, NY: Author.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for more than 20 years, serving previously as chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership and presents research findings and insights to audiences across the United States and in Canada, the Middle East, and Australia.

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