Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Finding the Way: Structure, Time, and Culture in School Improvement

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Finding the Way: Structure, Time, and Culture in School Improvement

Article excerpt

To Mr. Donahoe's mind, restructuring means the formal rearrangement of the use of time in schools to allow them to create and sustain the kind of interactive culture and supporting infrastructure they need to improve student learning.

AS I WORKED in the field of school improvement during the past four years, I became increasingly struck by the failure of those who write about and those who are directly involved in school restructuring to confront a critical question: How does a school generate and sustain the characteristics of effectiveness?

During my immersion in school reform I have read about, been told of, and seen firsthand the inadequacy of the factory model, the egg crate, the cellular structure of schools. I am familiar with the characteristics of effective schools as identified by research -- strong leadership, clear and ambitious goals, strong academic programs, teacher professionalism, and shared influence. I have seen lists of desired states, such as school-based management, shared decision making, schools-within-schools, integrated curriculum, interactive/cooperative learning, authentic assessment, performance-based testing, and parent involvement. But I have not read about, heard, or seen how a school takes on these features and, in so doing, differs from the traditional school in the way it functions -- in the way it's organized, in the way it structures time, in the roles and interrelationships of its staff. What has been missing, I think, is an adequate consideration of the crucial relationship in schools between structure, time, and culture.

To be fair, the literature and practice of school restructuring nips at the heels of these factors. When a school implements the programs of Theodore Sizer, James Comer, or Henry Levin, something has to change in the way the school functions. But those changes, in Joseph Schumpeter's terms, tend to be adaptive responses -- major changes that stay within the range of current custom rather than creative innovations that go beyond existing practices and procedures.[1] Maybe an evolving series of adaptive responses will get schools where they need to go eventually, but the more likely result is what Yevgeny Yevtushenko calls "fatal half-measures." As long as the responses only bend, rather than break, the traditional model, any changes brought about in a school are living on borrowed time. It is easier to go back than to go forward because the system that envelops the school was created to support the traditional model and is thoroughly inhospitable to any other form.

It has taken me some time to put these three elements -- structure, time, and culture -- together. When I began thinking about school improvement four years ago, my attention was attracted by the way schools were formally organized. Gradually, however, I found that time and culture had stronger roles to play in school effectiveness than I was accustomed to seeing in other settings. The best way to bring the roles of structure, time, and culture into focus is by describing my own progression of experience and thought.


In the fall of 1989 the Pacific Telesis Foundation, of which I was then president, began working with three California elementary schools in a comprehensive restructuring project. By January 1990 I had formed what I thought at the time was an original insight into school organization. I began saying that schools had no organization, describing them as just convenient locations for a bunch of individual teachers, like independent contractors, to come to teach discrete groups of children. I noticed that teachers did not talk about themselves as belonging to an organization; they were more likely to think of themselves as being at the outer reaches of a large bureaucracy. Nevertheless, I expected them to take offense at my description of schools. But no one did -- in fact, every educator I spoke to agreed rather enthusiastically. …

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