The Culture of Public Schools

In my last job in retail management, our company would talk about “intangibles” in leadership training sessions. What they were referring to were things such as how a customer feels when they leave a store, the interactions that were had through conversations between customers and staff, and the overall sense of happiness or adventure that a customer might feel in the store. Another way of stating the idea of intangibles when we are discussing business is “anything that you can’t gauge by a dollar sign.” But the fact is, that particular company is extremely savvy, because they explicitly recognized that their bottom line would be enhanced by paying attention to things that might not be immediately quantifiable. They pay attention to something that many businesses (and as I will now begin to examine – schools) do not take into consideration: the culture of their everyday business.

Similarly, in public schools across the nation, children and adults every day enter buildings where they succumb to a sense of drudgery, fear, paranoia, or even just plain chaos. The reasons for this reality are myriad, but one of the things you will hear frequently referred to when you talk about problems in education is the standardized test-taking and accountability movement. You’ll hear the horror stories from teachers about being pressured to “teach to the test.” In public education, the tests are to schools what the bottom line is to a business. All decisions are made based on the tests, more or less.
As many are so angrily pointing out, there is much more to teaching and to students than what shows up on a standardized test. And I would argue that what does show up on a standardized test has a lot to do with factors that are contextual, not simply a matter of an individual teacher and an individual student. Just as the company I was speaking about enhanced their bottom line and profited from addressing “intangibles” directly, so too could a school raise the test scores of their students if they spent more attention to factors within the school that have nothing to do directly with the test.
Now let’s be careful here. We all know that there are things going on in students’ lives that delimit their capabilities academically. A school can’t do much except perform consistent outreach efforts to the community to address such matters. But what we’re talking about here are the intangibles that are under a school’s control.
We’re talking about the feeling that you get before you even walk in the front door. And we’re not just talking about the signs, the display cases, the bulletin boards, the colors–although all of those things factor into it. We’re not just talking about whether the school follows some program of anti-bullying or anti-drugs or a social skills or life skills program.
We’re talking about how the students talk to each other. How the adults talk to each other. How the adults talk to the students. The everyday interactions, relationships, and rituals that foster and nurture a community. These are things that are perhaps largely intangible and not easily quantified (unless one is trained to quantify such things), but certainly worth investing attention in.
I would be willing to place a bet that if research were conducted that attempted to quantify the presence of a school culture (please notify me if such research has already been done!), they would discover that a nurturing, inclusive, and positive school culture correlates highly with student performance on tests. In other words, they would find that something so fuzzy as how happy or accepted students and adults feel overall would result in stronger performance on state tests. It would also most likely correlate with greater retention of effective teachers.

Improving the culture of a school is thus more important than a simpleminded focus on achievement. So in addition to enriching and challenging content, if we wish to improve the quality of our public schools, then we must also focus on designing and creating strong and positive school environments.

This modified post was originally written on my personal blog last year when I first began considering the metaphor of schools as ecosystems.

4 thoughts on “The Culture of Public Schools

  1. I agree. I would bet that the majority of teachers, at least the ones I know, would prefer to feel respected and valued as they try and respect and value their students, rather than receive a stipend for their “hard work.” The School “climate” would be so different if our energies were focused on school culture. I have always said that it is difficult to quantify most of what a teacher does for his/her students. The impact a dedicated teacher has are too vast and difficult to identify. How do you assess how a teacher looks at each and everyone of his/her students and intuitively works towards that student's personal needs, as well as the educational needs? Teachers know when a student is struggling emotionally. Teachers address those needs each and every day within their classroom. How do you collect data on this most important aspect of teaching? …and should we have to?


  2. Thanks for your comment, Peggy! Great points about the value that a teacher truly adds — as you said, so much of our impact goes far beyond what is currently measured. As teachers who work with students who exhibit challenging behaviors, you and I both know that we take children as they are when they come to us, and do our best to promote their social and emotional growth, in addition to their academic growth. For some children, their growth may be getting them to stay in the classroom instead of out in the hallway or out in the streets. That's an impact that may not show up on that year's test, but that will have tremendous impact in the years to come.


  3. Great post. School culture is so important and can have a huge effect on learning in the classroom. Respectful behavior needs to be modeled from the administration and the teachers if we expect it to occur in students.


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