Editor’s note: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently launched “The Acceleration Imperative,” an open-source, evidence-based resource designed to aid instructional leaders’ efforts to address the enormous challenges faced by their students, families, teachers, and staff over the past year. It comprises four chapters split into nineteen individual topics. Over the coming weeks, we will publish each of these as a standalone blog post. This is the first. Special thanks go to Ashley Berner of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, who wrote the first draft of this section.
The values and beliefs that a school community puts into practice each day define its culture. Schools with positive cultures have shared narratives, habits of mind, and effective ways of getting things done. They have articulated a coherent vision for excellence and can draw on it to flexibly respond to challenges, craft solutions, and reinforce practices that promote student success.
The conditions that support such cultures are influenced by the school’s climate—a distinct but related quality that determines the mood and feeling of a school community, the nature of relationships among adults and students, and expectations for physical and emotional security.
The fast-moving changes and interruptions in schooling caused by the pandemic have highlighted the importance of restoring and maintaining a positive school culture. Systems and networks that had established shared beliefs and norms prior to the crisis had more tools to help in their response and recovery. Schools that entered the crisis without aligned structures and values in place were at a disadvantage that was only compounded by the inequities that accompanied remote learning in high-poverty areas.
School culture includes many interrelated parts and can be difficult to define and change. But that will be a critical task to a productive pandemic recovery. School leaders must assess the routine practices of teachers, staff, students, and parents, identify the values and beliefs that drive those practices, and create the conditions for long-term success.
- Administer a school culture survey to evaluate the current strengths and weaknesses across the community, such as those from Johns Hopkins University, which also assesses climate more broadly, and UChicago Impact. Do teachers and staff view the school as having clear, high expectations for teaching and learning? Do they feel that vision is aligned with school or network policies and practices?
- Work with senior leaders in your school community, including parents and teachers, to ensure a clear articulation of the school’s mission and values, and use that mission and vision statement to model actions and drive decision-making related to the pandemic and beyond.
- Conduct an audit of school practices, including curriculum implementation and scaffolding, teacher professional development, the use of advisories, disciplinary codes, grading policies, and awards ceremonies, to ensure a through-line from the school’s mission to its institutional practices.
- Facilitate teacher leadership and collaboration to reinforce and share ownership of the school’s mission and vision.
A strong and positive school culture is characterized by a clear sense of direction and shared accountability to advance a vision for success, which shapes how teachers and leaders do their jobs. It is built on mutual respect and trust, which are the foundation of learning communities.
Scholars have identified the power of coherent culture in successful schools of all types. For example, a study of high-performing Catholic high schools attributed their impact on students to several aspects of school culture, including a decentralized structure that prioritized decision-making and leadership at the school level and a clear, common understanding of what all students should learn. Scott Seider’s exploration of how three Boston charter schools prioritize character development shows the impact of strong school culture as well as social and emotional learning. And Karin Chenoweth’s book looking at how beliefs and aligned practices support academic achievement in high-poverty district schools provides another distinct source of examples of school culture at work.
Positive school cultures have already supported some early responses to the pandemic. For example, a consortium of high-performing charter schools drew on their earlier reform work and professional collaborations to create the National Summer School Initiative (now Cadence Learning). Guilford County Schools, an innovative North Carolina district that has run its own teacher-licensing program since 2008, enlisted its master teachers to build an online library of instructional videos last spring and summer, a natural extension of its teacher-leadership Opportunity Culture initiative.
We note here that a strong culture cannot take root or thrive without a healthy school climate, and the values and actions that support these dimensions tend to go hand-in-hand. Schools must be safe from violence, both for students and teachers. Students from different socioeconomic, racial, or ethnic backgrounds should feel equally at home. Schools must support students’ emotional and social needs, while families must feel and actually be included as important members of the school community. Teachers must be respected by their principals, given the tools to lead rigorous classrooms, and provided opportunities to lead and collaborate with one another.
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