School Culture & School Reform Efforts
School culture is defined differently, but it generally refers to the values, practices, and actions of any particular school community, including the students, teachers, administrators, and related stakeholders, such as parents. School culture came to be defined as an essential contributing factor in school reform efforts, as it explains differences in the success in implementing some types of reforms across schools, and in enhancing student performance. It can enhance reform or be a barrier to change, depending on the nature of the culture of the school, and how thoroughly cultural issues have been considered in the reform and implementation processes.
Keywords Administrators; Anthropology; Collegiality; Cultural Capital; Education Reform; Leadership; Professionalization of Teaching; School-Based Management; School Culture; School Reform; Social Capital; Stakeholders
What is School Culture?
School culture is defined differently, but it generally refers to the values, practices, and actions of any particular school community, including the students, teachers, administrators, and related stakeholders, such as parents. The extent to which any one of those groups is involved in determining or contributing to school culture is likely to vary from school to school, but all are involved. School culture can be viewed as either negative or positive; the former meaning it is a barrier to positive change and the latter meaning it either contributes to increased productivity on the part of participants (teachers and students especially) and /or contributes to increased satisfaction on the part of participants. In essence, school culture moves away from short-term targeted issues such as test scores and achievement, and is instead about the people in and around the school; the ways in which they relate to one another, group expectations about the way things are done, and the ultimate outcomes of their actions.
School culture came to be defined as an essential contributing factor in school reform efforts, as it explains differences in the success in implementing some types of reforms across schools, and in enhancing student performance. It can enhance reform or be a barrier to change, depending on the nature of the culture of the school, and how thoroughly cultural issues have been considered in the reform and implementation processes.
The Center for Improving School Culture (2007) lists several more-specific definitions of school culture, reflecting some variations among theorists on the subject. School culture, broadly defined, encompasses everything that happens within and relating to the school, and the attitudes and responses of everyone within the greater school community to those events.
A Model for School Reform
At a more theoretical level, the concept of school culture as described by Deal and Petersen (1990, p.4) is seen as a model to approaching school change, from among five possible model options, including:
• A human resources model, which focuses on the competencies and needs of educators;
• A structural model, focusing on how schools are structured and operate;
• A political model, based on the relationships of powerful stakeholders in the school community;
• A free market model, emphasizing school choice and free market principles; and
• A school culture model, and anthropology-based model that considers a holistic view of the school including all stakeholders (Deal & Peterson, 1990).
Any one of the above school culture models encompasses elements of all the other models as well; making it greater than the sum of the parts.
Like any culture, Deal and Peterson (1990) suggest the culture of a school is "the character of a school as it reflects deep patterns of values, beliefs and traditions that have been formed over the course of its history" (p. 7). That character is then revealed or disseminated among community participants through "symbolic language and expressive action."
Why is School Culture Important?
Deal and Peterson (1990) note that "institutions work best when people are committed to certain commonly held values and are bonded to one another" (p. 9). To the extent that the school community can experience that commonality and bonding, it is thought that the performance of its members can be improved. If teachers, staff, students, administrators, and parents are striving towards common ideals and the rituals, daily actions, and rhetoric of the school community reflects that striving, then the school is regarded as having a "positive" culture, which is considered likely to enhance performance and overall satisfaction of its stakeholders.
Deal and Peterson (1990) suggest that productivity, which might be defined in terms of student achievement, student learning, teacher satisfaction, or in some other way, is related to certain elements of strong institutional culture. In schools, they specify that a positive culture involves:
• Strong values
• An emphasis on basic skills for all students
• High expectations for all students
• Strong leadership
• Shared beliefs throughout the school
• Good role models, and
• An atmosphere that is orderly, while not oppressive (p. 10).
According to Boyd (2007), other elements that enhance cultural internalizing are:
• Common language
• Criteria for inclusion and exclusion: clear boundaries
• Power and status structure
• Rewards and punishments, and
• Rules for understanding relationships
These positive elements, they state, can lead to better outcomes, such as
• Improved test scores,
• Improved morale of teachers,
• Reduced staff turnover, and
• Community satisfaction with the program.
However, Deal & Peterson (1990) note that in order to see such improvements, in addition to a strong school culture, "instructional curricular and economic systems must run smoothly" (p. 88).
Fullan (1999), however, who has written extensively on leadership and change, recommends assessing improvement in terms of how well educational leaders have been groomed, prepared and encouraged to continue and sustain the process of improvement, and to prepare other leaders.
History of the School Culture Concept
School culture came to be studied in depth during discussion of education reform in what became known as the second wave of reform policy-in which teachers began to be viewed as critical participants in the reform process.
Bates (2006) describes the history of educational reform theory throughout the 20th century, indicating that theories moved from a bureaucratic, leadership-focused model, to a more inclusive model, with a greater focus on culture than authoritarianism. He writes, "It is this dialogue between institutional and personal authority, the battle between bureaucracy and culture, which has characterized the debate over the nature, purpose and effectiveness of leadership in education for the past century" (p. 156). He goes on to describe the school as a "nexus" for cultural struggle both within the school community and reflecting the larger community within which the school operates, and cautions that improvement in schools can only occur if the interconnecting relationships among all participants, communities, and inter-related cultures, are considered in the context of all the others, and a climate of continual learning is understood throughout.
Deal and Peterson (1990) concur that it is essential to understand both the school and the local community culture, and how they interact. And they emphasize the challenges in addressing school cultural reforms. Any kind of culture, they report, is "deeply rooted" by nature, and thus must be considered carefully, and respected for its strengths, before introducing elements of change.
Bates (2006) describes schools as operating under two distinct pressures: the pressure of market forces, and economic...
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