School Climate & Safety Commentary

The Importance of ‘Reculturing’

By Scott Thompson — February 28, 2006 8 min read

That a politicized, fear-based, excuse-prone, top-down culture is antithetical to sustainable high performance in public education is a no-brainer. It’s also axiomatic that a culture of trust, openness, and collaboration—one built on shared ownership of a compelling vision—is crucial for sustaining high performance in public schools. What this means is that, unless an optimal culture for high performance is in place, “reculturing” must be at the core of educational leadership work.

—Gregory Ferrand


OK, but what is organizational culture? In essence, it is the underlying shared beliefs, history, assumptions, norms, and values that manifest themselves in patterns of behavior or, in other words, as “the way we do things around here.” Reculturing, then, is fundamentally altering an organization’s culture, its way of doing things. Leaders of high-performing school systems train much of their strategic attention on reculturing, because that’s where the mother lode of leverage for lasting change is located.

The devastating effects of a culture of fear and distrust, and the critical role of restoring a culture of trust in leading systemic improvement, are both well illustrated by the Sacramento, Calif., public schools. In the mid-1990s, the district was in chaos. Not only was student performance lagging—with nearly half of the 52,000 students performing in the bottom third in the nation, according to scores in reading and math on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition—but also buildings were in disrepair, the morale of teachers and administrators was sagging, and relations among the district administration, the school board, and the teachers’ union were acrimonious.

In 1995, then-Mayor Joe Serna commissioned a report documenting the depth and extent of the problems the school system faced. When the school board dismissed the report, Serna organized a slate of four candidates in the next election of the city’s seven-member school board. The slate won, and in February of 1997, the new board promoted the deputy superintendent, Jim Sweeney, to interim superintendent, making him the official superintendent that October.

In time, Superintendent Sweeney and his leadership team created and implemented a multifaceted action plan that has resulted in significant improvement in student-performance levels and a narrowing of the gap between poor and minority students and their more-advantaged peers. But none of this could have been accomplished if Sweeney had not attended to the crucial groundwork.

To begin the work of reculturing, he and members of the board began holding weekly meetings, dubbed “fireside chats,” in schools. The meetings were open to all comers, and Sweeney says that his role was more about listening and responding than simply holding forth. “We did a lot of grassroots stuff, just talking with people,” he later told me. “You just wear away all that cynicism.”

Later, when a newly designed accountability system and a strategic plan were created, Sweeney spent three months in schools explaining the two innovations’ purpose and gathering feedback. After providing an opportunity for everyone to review the plan, he convened a meeting in March of 1998 at the city’s ARCO sports arena of more than 4,500 employees. There, the overwhelming majority of participants signed a pledge of support.

It needs to be emphasized that a host of programmatic factors contributed to the noteworthy progress that has been achieved in Sacramento. It is also fair to say that the foundation for systemic improvement in the district was the restoration of a culture of trust and openness. Reculturing prepared the soil for significant restructuring and improved student achievement.

The importance of reculturing is even more powerfully evident in the Norfolk, Va., school system, the 2005 winner of the Broad Prize for Urban Education. Receiving this award has everything to do with dramatic increases in overall student-achievement levels and substantial narrowing of various achievement gaps. The extent of improvement in student achievement, in turn, could not have been realized without a thoroughgoing reculturing of the system.

Organizational culture and the levers for changing it are highly contextual. There is no box of neatly arranged tools that can be used to reculture. But the following reculturing strategies, used in Norfolk, are loaded with instructive implications for those who would lead schools to the crest of sustainable high performance.

Establishing a “no excuses” philosophy. Denise Schnitzer, who was Norfolk’s interim superintendent in 2004-05, says that before John Simpson became superintendent in 1998, the district had an “excuses mentality”—poverty and race were seen as excuses for the low academic achievement of some students. The new superintendent promoted a “no excuses” philosophy that now pervades the central office as well as the schools.

A culture of trust, openness, and continuous improvement gives traction to large-scale reforms.

Developing a widely owned philosophy of teaching and learning. In 2001, after the Norfolk public schools and the Panasonic Foundation agreed to form a partnership, the foundation’s senior consultants began asking district leaders about their vision and direction. Their responses were consistent: “world-class by 2010.” But when they were asked what that would look like, the answers varied. Developing a richer, widely owned philosophy of teaching and learning was an early focus of the partnership. In facilitated dialogues, school system stakeholders talked through questions and issues about teaching and learning and developed a statement of the system’s philosophy toward them. The one-page document included descriptions of responsibilities for administrators, teachers, students, parents, and community members.

Building trust and encouraging risk-taking. When John Simpson arrived in the district in 1998, he encountered a culture of low trust and limited risk-taking. As cabinet member Linda O’Koneck recalls, “We had to build trust among ourselves and with the schools through our actions and through our words.” The district’s communications manager, Vince Rhodes, says that “the vision became clearer and the trust started coming because you could see predictable patterns of behavior” on the part of school system leaders. Sharon Byrdsong, a middle school principal in the district, confirms the change: “I don’t think we’re afraid to take risks in our building, because the culture is so supportive.”

Shifting the focus of the central office from monitoring schools for compliance to active support of schools. The new superintendent reorganized the central office, eliminating deputy- and assistant-superintendent positions and replacing them with four division chiefs—academic, financial, operations, and information—all reporting directly to the superintendent. In the process, he eliminated many positions and shifted several million dollars from central administration out to schools. The move was from an oversized, multilayered, hierarchical bureaucracy to a central-office team that was flatter and more tightly focused on school support and instructional improvement.

Through most of the 1990s, the system had separate departments of professional development and curriculum and instruction. Under John Simpson, those departments were merged. Whereas members of the old departments had spent little time in schools, staffers now spend 70 percent of their time—about 29,000 hours a year—in schools, conducting workshops and responding to needs.

Basing decisions on data, not favoritism or politics. With the old culture, promotions sometimes resulted from who knew whom on the school board. In the recultured system, positive results are rewarded, and programs that have no data to back up their claims are eliminated.

For large-scale improvement to take hold, connections are essential, and these connections are made out of trust.

Establishing a system of shared accountability focused on results. A thoughtfully designed, data-based system of accountability is essential to a results-oriented culture. And if it’s a shared-accountability system, in which everyone from the school board to the superintendent, to central-office departments and to schools is held publicly accountable for results, accountability can also contribute to a culture of trust and collaboration. That’s how it has worked in Norfolk, where technology directors and food-service directors, not just principals, must report on their endeavors to improve student achievement.

Fostering a culture of continuous learning. Norfolk’s Leadership Learning Team, comprising 17 central-office administrators, spends several hours together each month exploring the implications of a selected book that the members all are reading. The purpose of the team is to build the skills and knowledge that district leaders will need to achieve the district’s mission. Dialogues around particular books have become a part of the Norfolk culture, and by providing common language, frameworks, and reference points, this practice has contributed to cultural cohesion. In Norfolk, principals and teachers throughout the system read and discuss the same books as the leadership learning team.

How did this rare phenomenon come about? Reading and discussing designated books throughout the system became part of the culture, the expected way of working, because the superintendent modeled it. At convocations of all district- and school-level administrators, Simpson would hold up several books he’d read over the summer and explain why he’d read them.

A culture of trust, openness, and continuous improvement gives traction to large-scale reforms. It enables leaders and stakeholders to tap into and capitalize upon their collective potential. For large-scale improvement to take hold, connections are essential, and these connections are made out of trust.

Trust engenders openness, and openness invites connections, and connections stimulate the inquiry and innovation that are essential to the creation of high-performing systems of schools—schools in which all children thrive, in an atmosphere of high expectations and unwavering support.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as The Importance of ‘Reculturing’


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