Spring 2010

Culture

Building Strong School Cultures Through Intensified Leadership

Building Strong School Cultures Through Intensified Leadership

Principals know that creating a school culture that ensures positive outcomes for students is not easily done. They also understand that creating a strong school culture requires an “all hands on deck” approach to meeting the needs of the school community—culture cannot be created or changed by any one person. 

Principals know that creating a school culture that ensures positive outcomes for students is not easily done. They also understand that creating a strong school culture requires an “all hands on deck” approach to meeting the needs of the school community—culture cannot be created or changed by any one person. Yet, bringing staff, teachers and parents together to do the work of the school is not easy. Doing this requires the skill of a strong leader and a highly competent manager. This suggests that leaders must be concerned both with organizational functions typically attributed to leadership – working on sustained system improvement and enticing and empowering staff to achieve top performances– as well as with organizational functions typically credited to management – working within the system and organizing regularized and predictable operations.

Creating strong cultures requires administrators to address daily operations and long term adaptive planning and vision simultaneously. As a consequence, principals must be prepared to manage and lead – often in the same meeting and with the same people. How? Smart leaders do this by including teachers, staff, parents and other community members in the work of school improvement.

What can we see when we look at a school where administrators are doing both, and who are, at the same time, engaging professional colleagues and others with a clear stake in school success? We see individuals and administrative teams that:

  • Focus on stimulating, energizing and coordinating professional activity within the school;
  • Span boundaries to include external stakeholders to build support and gather resources for student learning;
  • Create an environment of mutual responsibility and accountability for supporting students and creating change;
  • Build links between older practices and ways of thinking and the future;
  • Develop professional community and organizational learning with the specific intention of changing their school culture;
  • Sustain a vision of schooling that emphasizes dignity and changing lives;
  • Adopt an attitude of serving as well as doing; and
  • Remain focused on long-term strategic goals while attending to the daily tasks and activities that ensure smooth operations (Kruse & Louis, 2009).

This is a long list of tasks. Which of these are management, and which are leadership? Can one person or even a small team do all of these things every day? Clearly not, except in the most extraordinary cases. The only way that this agenda can be carried out is to intensify leadership so that responsibility for developing and maintaining a vital school culture is widely shared among all of the stakeholders. This means, of course, that more people need to be brought into the leadership arena -- which also means that the image of the school administrator as the “buck stops here kind of guy (or gal)” needs to radically shift. As the tasks of leadership and management become more blurred, opportunities to intensify leadership abound. If attending to the complexity of these issues is too much for one person—and we believe that it is—then school leaders must look to others to carry out these roles. In this way the culture becomes strengthened through the shared creation of what it means to be part of the school and how the work of the school gets done.

Intensification of leadership is our term to describe an approach to changing the cultural conditions that affect teaching and learning. We are not advocating the abandonment of instructional leadership: principals clearly need to understand and support what teachers do in classrooms in order to help create the conditions that allow them to be more effective. Intensification of leadership acknowledges the existing reality that there are already multiple leaders in any school, and offers a roadmap to integrate these influences into a more coherent and less contradictory message.

There is a fundamental problem, however: you cannot control your school’s culture. Most of the people—teachers, students, and parents— who collectively determine what the school’s culture is like have limited incentive to listen to you. Managing a school’s culture is not dependent on the authority that you have based on your position, but can only be affected by increasing your influence over behaviors, beliefs, relationships, and other complex dynamics present in the school that are often unpredictable.

A school’s culture is characterized by deeply rooted traditions, values, and beliefs, some of which are common across schools and some of which are unique and embedded in a particular school’s history and location. Culture informs the ways in which “things get done around here” and, just as importantly, frames how change efforts are perceived. Based in accumulated experiences, a school’s rules and regulations, polices and procedures, whether written or informal, are the lasting artifacts of old organizational lessons.

Improving culture is not an end in itself, but the means by which school leaders can address the goals of student progress and achievement.

Thus, improving culture is not an end in itself, but the means by which school leaders can address the goals of student progress and achievement. Three features of school cultures that have been tied to student learning are:

Professional community:

Professional community (PC) directs a spotlight on the relationships among adults within the school. By focusing on the structural and human resource conditions necessary for schools to become strongly connected around the goal of student learning, the framework suggests that strong school cultures are based on shared norms and values, reflective dialogue, public practice, and collaboration (Louis & Kruse, 1995). The essence of professional community is that all adults in a school are presented with the opportunity to work with others to grow and change – and that meaningful and sustained connections are necessary for that to occur. This occurs when teachers take collective responsibility for improving student learning. Collective responsibility, in which all members feel accountable for all students, is at the core of intensified leadership.

Organizational learning:

The concept of organizational learning (OL) suggests that continuous improvement through collective engagement with new ideas will generate enhanced classroom practices and a deeper understanding of how organizational improvement occurs. The idea is frequently coupled with that of professional community in programs that are designed to create more visible “professional learning communities” (Hord & Sommers, 2008; Stoll & Louis, 2007). However, not all group learning occurs in organized meetings, and we wish to emphasize the uncertainty of predicting which structures and experiences will produce the “aha moment” that helps to shift the culture from old to new values, beliefs and practices. Seemingly random contacts with novel ideas as well as structured efforts to examine data and plan new programs may both produce forward momentum. OL focuses on the ways in which new ideas are brought into the school organization, how they are considered and evaluated, and the ways in which school organizations retain and use the knowledge generated from them. Organizational learning generally occurs when groups acknowledge small failures and consider alternatives, and this occurs more often when more people take responsibility for problem finding and problem solving (Levitt & March, 1988). Culture is enhanced as more members of the school community learn new and better ways to address the needs of students and then work to share those understandings with others.

Trust:

Trust is the glue that holds social networks and relationships together. In schools trust is considered to be the result of several dispositions working in concert, among these are integrity (or honesty and openness), concern (also called benevolence or personal regard for others), competence, and reliability (or consistency). Trust has been linked with organizational effectiveness in business settings; in schools trust among teachers and between teachers and other groups is linked to higher student achievement (Tschannen-Moran, 2004). While principals cannot bear full responsibility for creating trusting cultures in their schools, their behavior sets a tone and a foundation for creating trusting relationships and professional community in other groups (Bryk & Schneider, 2002).

School culture is most powerful when the ideas that underscore each of the themes are viewed as strategic cultural actions. When viewed as strategic actions, building professional communities, creating opportunities for organizational learning, and developing trust are not things done once. Nor is the culture that emerges from these efforts something you can claim to have become and then ignore. Rather, it is an orientation toward school leadership. Intensification of leadership provides you the skill set to change your school culture and to achieve your goals for student success.

References

Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Hord, S., & Sommers, W. (2008). Leadership and professional learning communities: Possibilities, practice and performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Kruse, S. D. & Louis, K. S. (2009). Building strong school cultures: A guide to leading change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Levitt, B., & March, J. G. (1988). Organizational learning. Annual Review of Sociology, 14, 319-340.

Louis, K. S., & Kruse, S. D. (1995). Professionalism and community: Perspectives on reforming urban schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Stoll, L., & Louis, K. S. (2007). Professional learning communities: Divergence, depth and dilemmas. London/New York: Open University Press/McGraw Hill.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2004). Trust matters: Leadership for successful schools. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Sharon D. Kruse is a professor in the Department of Educational Foundations and Leadership at the University of Akron. Over the past decade, she has studied school leadership and successful school improvement practices. She previously worked with Karen Seashore Louis coauthoring, "Professionalism and Community: Perspective on Reforming Urban Schools" (Corwin Press 1995) and with Bob Johnson Jr. coauthoring, "Decision Making for Educational Leaders: Under-Examined Dimensions and Issues."

Karen Seashore Louis has a primary research interests focus on school improvement and school reform. She also teaches and advises in all areas of educational policy and administration. Her main area of expertise includes improvement in K-12 leadership and policy over the last 30 years, particularly in urban secondary schools. Dr. Seashore Louis also conduct research on organizational changes within higher education, with particular attention to faculty roles, and on international comparative policy in educational reform. Her interest in evaluation is a long-standing, and has emphasized in the assessment of large-scale educational programs and policies.