Klea Scharberg

The Way We Do School Improvement

Every school has a culture. Some are positive, while others are toxic; many are somewhere in between. A school's culture affects the lives of everyone in the building. Educators working in a positive school culture (PDF) experience collegiality, trust, and tangible support as leaders and peers, creating an environment where there are high expectations, involvement in decision making, and open communication. Students entering a positive school culture feel safe, engaged, and connected and see school as a place where they can learn and contribute to the world around them.

We get used to our environments—our culture—and say, "This is how we do things here" and "This is the way it has always been." Author and founding director of the Harvard Principals' Center Roland S. Barth writes in Educational Leadership that "a school's culture can work for or against improvement and reform. Some schools are populated by teachers and administrators who are reformers, others by educators who are gifted and talented at subverting reform. And many school cultures are indifferent to reform."

So, how do we assess our schools' cultures and change them to support improvement? Whole child partner organization Character Education Partnership offers three conditions for building positive school cultures (PDF):

  1. "Schools need measures of success and areas for improvement that go beyond test scores" (p. 5).

  2. "Educators must have a comprehensive understanding of what 'school culture' is" (p. 5).

  3. "Finally, schools need tools for developing and assessing school culture, and must be held accountable for their school cultures" (p. 7).

School leaders can shape the culture by identifying norms and values, assessing which elements support the school's purpose and mission, and reinforcing positive aspects and working to transform negative aspects. By changing the way we do things at our schools, we are creating environments where teachers and students learn and achieve success.

In the October Whole Child Podcast, we looked at school culture and community from the student perspective. Listen to a two-part series on respecting and reflecting school culture and leading and changing school culture featuring student and adult members of the Special Olympics National Youth Activation Committee. Read the Whole Child Blog to hear from guest bloggers and experts on understanding and changing school culture to support school improvement.

Have you signed up to receive the Whole Child Newsletter? Read this month's newsletter and visit the archive for more strategies, resources, and tools you can use to help ensure that each child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

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