The Power of School Culture: Research Show Which Traits of a School's Culture Most Affect Student Achievement, and How Schools Can Work toward Positive Change

By Goldring, Leslie | Leadership, November-December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Power of School Culture: Research Show Which Traits of a School's Culture Most Affect Student Achievement, and How Schools Can Work toward Positive Change


Goldring, Leslie, Leadership


Teachers and administrators are encouraged to work smarter, leaner and with a renewed purpose to increase student achievement. If this were the only area in your school that required attention, it would be easier to produce rapid and lasting results. But schools are a hub of activity and daily challenge. On any given day, any of the following scenarios might be happening on your campus:

* No one has signed up to coordinate the 15th annual Parent Education Night.

* A lack of collaboration time is affecting the science department's implementation of new textbooks.

* A team of teachers agrees to meet to focus on the behavior problems of one student.

* Teachers feel they have no control over the site budget.

* The administrators and teachers will be welcoming a new group of parents during the orientation event.

* The principal helped initiate some innovative schoolwide practices, but teachers don't feel updated on their progress.

Daily life on a school campus is complex. As educators, the question we have to ask is this: What are the influences and tools within our control that can help us manage all the aspects of our schools, while remaining focused on the academic success of our students? Both teachers and principals report that school culture is the answer.

Underneath the operating network of our roles as teachers, classified staff and administrators lies a deeper, less visible structure called culture. Culture is a part of every group of people who gather together, whether in work groups, neighborhoods, schools or large corporations. Culture's power lies in the ability to dictate everything about a group, from what it discusses to the beliefs group members hold in common and the values the group teaches. Culture ix a visible and usable tool in schools, where relationships tend to hold more power than official roles and titles.

Research has identified a positive connection between a school's culture and student achievement. Results of a recent survey of teachers and principals in a sample of California schools agree with the literature that culture is an effective tool that is critical to the success of students.

The concept of culture in our schools stems from the primitive and potent forces of human history and development studied in anthropology, psychology and sociology. It has been referred to as the connecting glue between people that informs a group "how we do things around here." One of the most important aspects of culture is that over time, its influence over every aspect of a school becomes invisible and taken for granted. This is an example of what is called unspoken norms, which direct the things we do and the way we act.

How does a culture develop? As a group of educators work together, the problems they solve as they develop policy, set curriculum and schedule, involve community members and resolve conflict, slowly solidify into a school culture. This culture guides us at three different levels.

The first level refers to things that can be observed, such as the way time and space is arranged at a school, meetings are organized, budgets decided, communication and conflict managed and celebrations held.

The values we believe in that support all of those elements in the first level make up the second level. These can be felt through the behaviors and relationships of staff members, and seen in symbols that represent the school.

The third level refers to the collected assumptions gathered by a group over time that organize who is accepted in a group, the extent of sharing between members, and many other aspects of school life. The weight of this underlying level of behavior and thought in a group is what lends culture its similarity to an iceberg. Although this third and most powerful level dictates every thing that is seen and spoken in the first level, researchers believe that addressing issues through the first two levels of culture can produce changes in this deeper, psychological level of schools. …

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