School & District Management

School Climate: Missing Link in Principal Training?

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 05, 2013 6 min read
Suzanne E. Scallion, the superintendent in Westfield, Mass., says school leaders ignore the importance of school culture "at our peril and our students' peril."
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Improving a struggling school’s climate can be both the foundation of long-term school improvement and a source of immediate, visible progress for a new principal. The tricky part for many principals, experts say, is translating an idyllic vision into classroom reality.

That’s why groups preparing so-called “turnaround leaders” increasingly say principals need more training—not just on data and academics—but also on how to build relationships and support for learning among staff and students.

“We have found the training on culture and climate inadequate in most places,” said Bob Hughes, the executive director of the Washington-based National Institute of School Leadership. “Universities are trying to respond and change now. That is beginning to happen, but not fast enough.”

According to an analysis released last month by the Dallas-based George W. Bush Institute, 43 states include “developing a positive school culture” in their standards for principals, but a majority of states do not track what training on culture new leaders receive before going into a school.

Clyde A. Cole, the executive director of content and curriculum for New Leaders, a nonprofit based in New York City, said understanding school climate and culture is a critical part of its Aspiring Principals program. The group trains leaders to turn around struggling, high-poverty urban schools.

A principal under pressure to improve test scores is more likely to focus on classroom content and instruction than to gauge whether students feel respected or teachers collaborate well, Mr. Cole said, partly because academic factors are easier to assess.

‘Consequence’ Leadership

Because school climate can be more difficult than academics to quantify, Mr. Hughes said, most principal training focuses on “abstracts and symptoms.”

“Graduation rates are low, so let’s build a program to address graduation. We’ve got teacher absenteeism, let’s put money for that. Well, of course, graduation rates are important, teacher absenteeism is important, but that’s a symptom,” Mr. Hughes said.

“We really want to be imbuing principals with ‘consequence’ leadership—looking at the outcomes and the behaviors that got you there, not just always at the symptoms,” he said.

There is more research on best practices for evaluating and improving school climate, but “the emphasis on a positive, developmentally appropriate learning culture for students has gotten a lot less attention in recent years with the focus on accountability,” said Margaret Terry Orr, the director of the Future School Leader Academy at Bank Street College of Education in New York City.

In principal-training programs, Ms. Orr said, “you see more and more emphasis around student performance and how to read available test and achievement data.”

Yet principals who learn to attend to culture seem better at academic leadership, too, according to some research.

In a 2007 study of principal education programs, Ms. Orr found that principals who had attended “exemplary” training programs—those with comprehensive curricula accompanied by intensive in-school internships and support—reported more improvement in the year of the study as well as a stronger “continuous-improvement climate” and academic focus, as compared with principals in other training programs.

Suzanne E. Scallion, the superintendent of the 6,000-student Westfield school district in Massachusetts, has found similar results in her own studies of how principals address school climate.

She found that leaders who have been trained to understand how relationships and values interact in a school can improve their campus cultures, and that those without such a conceptual understanding still have an “accidental influence” on their campuses—not always a healthy one.

David Levin, a co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, said the national charter school network developed its in-house principal training to be a hybrid of education and business leadership.

Traditional principal-preparation programs, he said, often give a strong academic grounding but provide less focus on the skills and strategies for creating a workplace culture, which are more commonly found in management training for other industries.

Many “turnaround” principals come to their schools with a clear vision of what a good school climate should be, but still have difficulty getting staff and students on board, said Mr. Cole, of New Leaders.

“If you have people who are Type A and successful and not necessarily patient with other people, they think they need to just go in and do everything themselves,” Mr. Cole said. “The worse the culture and climate are, the less they use those interpersonal tactics to engage a variety of people, when in fact they need to do more.

“For a lot of principals, that’s where they fall down.”

One of New Leaders’ recent graduates, Rachel J. Neill, the principal at Quail Hollow Middle School, in Charlotte, N.C., agreed.

“It can be tricky when you’re a first-year principal, because there are all these archetypes of what a good principal should be. There can be this pressure to be the expert and have all the answers,” Ms. Neill said. “Training helped me to be comfortable in not having all the answers.”

Reasons vs. Assumptions

The New York Leadership Academy, another nonprofit that recruits, develops, and supports principals, dedicates one week of its six-week summer training institute to helping would-be principals understand the factors that contribute to positive school culture and confront their own biases, said Kathleen Nadurak, the academy’s executive vice president of programs.

The participants practice “low-inference observations"—identifying relationships and actions at a school and then seeking reasons for them, rather than making assumptions.

For example, aspiring principals may confront a scenario in which teachers gather in their lounge in the morning rather than greeting incoming students.

“Your interpretation is they’re lazy, they’re waiting until the last minute—and all you’re really seeing is the teachers are not at the door,” Ms. Nadurak said.

“It comes from a very good motive; [principals] feel urgency about changing things for kids,” she said. “I respect that, but it’s not going to help get things done—particularly if people think they are already doing exactly what you asked them to do.”

It’s also easy for good intentions to go awry in a school without trust. Last year, in her first as principal at Quail Hollow, Ms. Neill held individual and group meetings with teachers to identify what they thought was working at their school and what needed to be changed.

She then instituted a quarterly anonymous online survey for teachers to weigh in on how things were progressing throughout the year. After the first survey, Ms. Neill said, a teacher protested, arguing that even though the survey was anonymous, submissions could be traced to individual computers and used in future teacher evaluations.

“I genuinely just wanted to get feedback,” Ms. Neill said. “On one hand, I had to have that conversation and say, ‘I really hope you trust me.’

“On the other hand, I had to prove that in my actions, taking the survey data back to the teachers and saying, ‘Here’s what we found; here are the changes we’re making based on the feedback’ … and for people to see that it didn’t show up in anyone’s evaluation.”

In Westfield, Ms. Scallion has started school culture training for all assistant principals on track to become school leaders. She meets with them monthly to review school data, such as student-behavior incidents and climate surveys, and look at various case studies.

“I look at them as my talent pool for future principals. Effective principals are intentional, consciously trying to influence school climate,” Ms. Scallion said. “We ignore it at our peril and our students’ peril, because students need to be in an environment where they not only feel physically safe, but feel emotionally supported and successful.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment.
A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Principals Lack Training in Shaping School Climate

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