ERIC Identifier: ED370198
Publication Date: 1994-06-00
Author: Stolp, Stephen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Leadership for School Culture. ERIC Digest, Number 91.
Successful leaders have learned to view their organizations' environment in a
holistic way. This wide-angle view is what the concept of school culture offers
principals and other leaders. It gives them a broader framework for
understanding difficult problems and complex relationships within the school. By
deepening their understanding of school culture, these leaders will be better
equipped to shape the values, beliefs, and attitudes necessary to promote a
stable and nurturing learning environment.
WHAT IS SCHOOL CULTURE?
The field of education lacks a
clear and consistent definition of SCHOOL CULTURE. The term has been used
synonymously with a variety of concepts, including "climate," "ethos," and
"saga" (Deal 1993). The concept of culture came to education from the corporate
workplace with the notion that it would provide direction for a more efficient
and stable learning environment.
Scholars have argued about the meaning of CULTURE for centuries. Noted
anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973) has made a large contribution to our
current understanding of the term. For Geertz, culture represents a
"historically transmitted pattern of meaning." Those patterns of meaning are
expressed both (explicitly) through symbols and (implicitly) in our
A review of the literature on school culture reveals much of Geertz's
perspective. Terrence E. Deal and Kent D. Peterson (1990) note that the
definition of culture includes "deep patterns of values, beliefs, and traditions
that have been formed over the course of [the school's] history." Paul E.
Heckman (1993) reminds us that school culture lies in "the commonly held beliefs
of teachers, students, and principals." These definitions go beyond the business
of creating an efficient learning environment. They focus more on the core
values necessary to teach and influence young minds.
Thus, SCHOOL CULTURE can be defined as the historically transmitted patterns
of meaning that include the norms, values, beliefs, ceremonies, rituals,
traditions, and myths understood, maybe in varying degrees, by members of the
school community (Stolp and Smith 1994). This system of meaning often shapes
what people think and how they act.
WHY IS SCHOOL CULTURE IMPORTANT?
Researchers have compiled
some impressive evidence on school culture. Healthy and sound school cultures
correlate strongly with increased student achievement and motivation, and with
teacher productivity and satisfaction.
Consider several recent studies. Leslie J. Fyans, Jr. and Martin L. Maehr
(1990) looked at the effects of five dimensions of school culture: academic
challenges, comparative achievement, recognition for achievement, school
community, and perception of school goals. In a survey of 16,310 fourth-,
sixth-, eighth-, and tenth-grade students from 820 public schools in Illinois,
they found support for the proposition that students are more motivated to learn
in schools with strong cultures.
In a project directed at improving elementary student test scores, Jerry L.
Thacker and William D. McInerney (1992) looked at the effects of school culture
on student achievement. The project they studied focused on creating a new
mission statement, goals based on outcomes for students, curriculum alignment
corresponding with those goals, staff development, and building level
decision-making. The results were significant. The number of students who failed
an annual statewide test dropped by as much as 10 percent.
These results are consistent with other findings that suggest the
implementation of a clear mission statement, shared vision, and schoolwide goals
promote increased student achievement.
School culture also correlates with teachers' attitudes toward their work. In
a study that profiled effective and ineffective organizational cultures, Yin
Cheong Cheng (1993) found stronger school cultures had better motivated
teachers. In an environment with strong organizational ideology, shared
participation, charismatic leadership, and intimacy, teachers experienced higher
job satisfaction and increased productivity.
HOW IS IT BEST TO CHANGE A SCHOOL'S CULTURE?
are interested in changing their school's culture should first try to understand
the existing culture. Cultural change by definition alters a wide variety of
relationships. These relationships are at the very core of institutional
stability. Reforms should be approached with dialogue, concern for others, and
One strategy was outlined by Willis J. Furtwengler and Anita Micich (1991).
At a retreat, students, teachers, and administrators from five schools were
encouraged to draw visible representations of how they felt about their school
culture. The idea was to "make thought visible" and highlight positive and
negative aspects of their respective school cultures. Teachers, parents, and
administrators were able to identify several areas that would benefit from
Likewise, school artifacts such as the routines, ceremonies, rituals,
traditions, myths, or subtle difference in school language can provide clues for
how to approach cultural change. School artifacts change over time. A principal
may decide to shorten time between classes only later to find out that this time
was important for teacher interaction and unity. Paying attention to such
routines, before changing them, may provide valuable insights into how school
A formal and well-tested instrument for approaching cultural change is
NASSP's Comprehensive Assessment of School Environments' Information Management
System (CASE--IMS). This instrument focuses on leadership styles, organizational
structure, beliefs and values, classroom satisfaction, and productivity.
CASE--IMS offers a diagnostic assessment that focuses on the entire school
environment (Keefe 1993).
WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN VISION AND CULTURAL
A coherent vision specifies the particular values and beliefs that will guide policy and practice within the school. Ideally, the school
board and superintendent set a broad vision for all schools in the district,
and, within that context, the principal coordinates the process of arriving at a
particular vision for each school. The creation of a vision is not a static
event, because the vision must change as culture changes. As Peter Senge (1990)
notes, "At any one point there will be a particular image of the future that is
predominant, but that image will evolve." The principal who is able to adapt a
vision to new challenges will be more successful in building strong school
A vision for creating a healthy school culture should be a collaborative
activity among teachers, students, parents, staff, and the principal. Michael G.
Fullan (1992) writes, "Whose vision is it?" "Principals," he says, "are blinded
by their own vision when they must manipulate the teachers and the school
culture to conform to it." A more useful approach is to create a shared vision
that allows for collaborative school cultures.
WHAT IS THE PRINCIPAL'S ROLE?
The most effective change in
school culture happens when principals, teachers, and students model the values
and beliefs important to the institution. The actions of the principal are
noticed and interpreted by others as "what is important." A principal who acts
with care and concern for others is more likely to develop a school culture with
similar values. Likewise, the principal who has little time for others places an
implicit stamp of approval on selfish behaviors and attitudes.
Besides modeling, Deal and Peterson suggest that principals should work to
develop shared visions--rooted in history, values, beliefs--of what the school
should be, hire compatible staff, face conflict rather than avoid it, and use
story-telling to illustrate shared values.
More practical advice comes from Jane Arkes, a principal interviewed by Stolp
and Smith: work on team-building; put your agenda second; know that you don't
have all the answers--everyone has limitations; learn from students and staff;
put people before paper.
Finally and most important, principals must nurture the traditions,
ceremonies, rituals, and symbols that already express and reinforce positive
Cheng, Yin Cheong. "Profiles of Organizational
Culture and Effective Schools." SCHOOL EFFECTIVENESS AND SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT 4, 2
Deal, Terrence E. "The Culture of Schools." In EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP AND
SCHOOL CULTURE edited by Marshall Sashkin and Herbert J. Walberg. Berkeley,
California: McCutchan Publishing, 1993.
Deal, Terrence E., and Kent D. Peterson. THE PRINCIPAL'S ROLE IN SHAPING
SCHOOL CULTURE. Washington, D.C.: Office of Educational Research and
Improvement, 1990. 122 pages. ED 325 914.
Fullan, Michael G. "Visions That Blind." EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 49, 5
(February 1992): 19-22. EJ 439 278.
Furtwengler, Willis J., and Anita Micich. "Seeing What We Think: Symbols of
School Culture." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American
Educational Research Association, Chicago, 1991. 16 pages. ED 335 754.
Fyans, Leslie J., Jr., and Martin L. Maehr. "School Culture, Student
Ethnicity, and Motivation." Urbana, Illinois: The National Center for School
Leadership. 1990. 29 pages. ED 327 947.
Geertz, Clifford. THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURES. New York: Basic Books,
1973. 470 pages. Heckman, Paul E. "School Restructuring in Practice: Reckoning
with the Culture of School." INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL REFORM 2, 3
(July 1993): 263-71.
Keefe, James W. "Leadership for School Restructuring--Redesigning Your
School." HIGH SCHOOL MAGAZINE 1, 2 (December 1993): 4-9.
Senge, Peter M. "The Leader's New Work: Building Learning Organizations."
SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW (Fall 1990): 7-23.
Stolp, Stephen, and Stuart C. Smith. SCHOOL CULTURE AND CLIMATE: THE ROLE OF
THE LEADER. OSSC Bulletin. Eugene: Oregon School Study Council, January 1994. 57
Thacker, Jerry L., and William D. McInerney. "Changing Academic Culture To
Improve Student Achievement in the Elementary Schools." ERS SPECTRUM 10, 4 (Fall
1992): 18-23. EJ 454 390.