3 Steps to Changing the Culture of a School or a District - SchoolWealth, Inc.
3 Steps to Changing the Culture
of a School or a District
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School and district leaders are acutely aware that the only constant in public
education is change. Michael Fullan has made a career of studying change and
advising school districts and their leaders how to manage the process of change, and
many other researchers have contributed to the existing literature on the subject.
Several factors make schools and districts uniquely resistant to change, requiring a
degree of specialization whenever something new is introduced.
Some of the biggest impediments to change in public school districts can actually be
turned into strengths, provided the resources and support exist to ensure a positive
outcome. This brief series will focus on how to turn impediments to change into strengths
in the process of change, specific to public school districts and from the perspective of
a school or district leader.
In no particular order of importance, and in no way presented as a comprehensive list,
three things stand out as universal aspects of public school districts that, when handled
skillfully by educational leaders and the boards that employ them, can lead to school
and district improvement in a larger context of change.
1. School Governance and the Board of Education
2. Resource Support and Finite Budgets
3. Teacher Unions and Labor Issues
Schools and districts are more likely to live up to their obligation to improve continuously
when they are overseen by an interested public, a notion first promulgated by Horace
Mann in the mid-nineteenth century. Though the occasional tension between the
professionals in a school district and the laypeople who oversee their work is real,
transparency and communication are the two key factors that can prevent tension
that debilitates the change process.
Mark Twain famously once observed, “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for
practice. Then He made school boards.” School leaders know better than to dust off
that particular quote except to refute it, and school board members more typically
prove the quote inaccurate than factual. Social commentary often does, however,
have some basis in fact and experience.
Serving on a public school board is one of the more thankless ways to spend many
hours of time trying to contribute something valuable to the world, and most board
members largely serve nobly and productively. The relationship between the board
president and the superintendent of schools is critical to the success of the district and
of the board in serving that district, a fact embedded within statute and laws governing
public education in virtually every state.
The success of any human endeavor is dependent on close and frequent
communication, and most board presidents and district leaders speak virtually every
day, often simply to check in but also to discuss issues of significance. Developing a
mutually trustful relationship with the board leadership is one of the wisest things
seasoned district leaders are sure to do, every year and in every manner reasonable.
Great board presidents understand their role of managing the rest of the board, freeing
the administration to concentrate their efforts on running the district. Rogue board
members who need to be gently reigned in or reminded of their proper role are
handled most effectively by one of their own, ideally the president or her/his designee.
The politics of managing the board belongs to the board, just as the running of the
school district belongs to the administration.
When boards cross the line between running the district themselves and more properly
ensuring that it is well run by the professionals they hire for the task, great board
presidents step in instantly and decisively. In the absence of such an approach by the
leadership of the board, the smartest thing for a district leader to do is continue working
through the president.
The inevitable problem of board members who overstep their rightful authority is only
compounded by administrators who give in to the temptation to take matters on
themselves, easy to do for people predisposed for leadership of an organization. The
learned skill of delegating board matters to the board president is one of the toughest
lessons for the new district leader, and one of the most critical to the ultimate success of
the entire district.
District leaders also work closely with the board on educational matters, often in a
committee structure. When new products or programs are proposed for the board’s
consideration, gaining early support of the portion of the board responsible for those
changes is the best way to ensure the eventual support of the full board.
Informing the general public about what’s new or coming in the district is another
aspect of change that is best communicated first with the board. The timing and
release of information about new things in a district should be a collaborative decision
between board and superintendent, neither of whom is typically a big fan of surprises.
The cohesive relationship between the board and the superintendent is one of the
biggest factors in bringing productive change to a district and succeeding in the
endeavor. The next item in this series will examine another aspect of the board and
administration partnership, the decisions about resource support in a necessarily finite
Many factors are in play when leaders attempt to change the culture of an
organization, and the culture of a public school or district is uniquely resistant to
change. The structure and governance of schools present challenges and opportunities
that simply don’t exist in the world of private enterprise, and a closer look at some of
impediments to change can help educational leaders overcome them.
Though businesses are often guided by a board of directors, the role they play is
typically more subordinate to the CEO and CFO than school boards often are with the
senior leadership of a district. When mutually trustful relationships are established
between board members and the educational leaders of any district, the students
benefit from such cohesion and the district is typically more successful than in the
absence of such rapport.
Working with a board of education is one of the three things examined in this series that
can exist as either a challenge or an opportunity when a cultural shift is desired and
actively sought. A culture intentionally more focused on the whole child, increased
innovation, enhanced rigor, or any number of equally noble descriptors that can
characterize a district is made more possible when board and administration are equal
partners in the process.
One of the primary responsibilities of the board is to approve purchases and
expenditures, and with their votes on products, programs, and personnel the board has
a profound impact on the direction taken by a district. Given the occasionally tenuous
nature of resource support from one budget cycle to the next, running a district and
working with the board in the process represents one of the biggest challenges for
school and district leaders.
When the vision of a district is communicated clearly and when that vision remains
constant for a reasonable length of time, budget decisions can and should be made to
advance the vision and, thereby, the interests of the district and its students. Teachers
are understandably reluctant to invest their creative energy in initiatives that seem to
shift took quickly from year to year, and committing to things that have a tangible
connection to an established district vision is typically a recipe for success.
When local taxes and federal entitlement funds contribute directly to the operating
funds of a district, any threats to those funding sources jeopardize aspects of district
operations that can have an immediately detrimental impact on educational
outcomes. Coming soon in this space will be a series of articles that outline steps
principals and superintendents can take to shield their schools and districts from the
immediate harm of unreliable funding.
As aspects of the yearly budget often increase well beyond the means of most districts
to absorb such increases, leaders are constantly faced with the need to economize
and innovate. Personnel costs, especially health care and other benefits, regularly and
substantially outpace the relatively modest increases allowable each year in the tax
levy. Dwindling NCLB funds each year had a similar leavening effect on the ability of
districts to innovate and personalize the learning experience for students.
Operating at a deficit or deciding not to fund certain things in a school budget are
simply not options for school and district leaders. The finite nature of the overall school
budget forces districts to live within their means, even when unfunded mandates from
the state or federal government must be folded into the operation of a district.
Educational leaders are thereby forced to develop an approach to budgeting that
includes contingency planning as part of the process each year.
The observation is often made that if you wish to see the priorities of any organization,
pay attention to where the money goes. The fact that most school budgets include
spending on personnel that far outpaces any other aspects of the budget, typically as
high as 80% or more of the overall budget, is very telling. Education is a people-intensive
endeavor, intentionally so and much to the benefit of students.
Ask yourself what you remember most about your school days, and most of us would
reflect on a particular teacher, advisor, or coach who believed in us. Almost no one
would even mention the computers or textbooks that helped them to learn.
The challenges and opportunities represented by a strong union presence in any school
district is another aspect of organizational leadership that is unique to the education
profession. The professional staff members in any district are the life-blood of the
organization, and the means by which they organize will be the focus of the last item in
this short series, Teacher Unions and Labor Issues.
Several things make changing the existing culture in an educational context more
vexing than in the business world, two of which are handling a board of education and
dealing with finite resources and unreliable funding sources. An examination of a third
factor, teacher unions and labor issues, can help school and district leaders to
overcome institutional inertia and make innovative change a reality in their own
The manner in which teachers typically organize themselves, and the sheer volume of
teaching professionals who are members of a local bargaining unit and state or
national unions, give teacher unions an extraordinary amount of political influence in
most states. The profession would benefit by embracing most of what teachers believe
is important in educating children, rather than allowing politicians to have authority
they have historically handled poorly.
Despite efforts to dial back the bargaining power of teachers, perhaps most notably in
Governor Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, teachers continue to wield considerable influence
on policy decisions that can impact the delivery of educational services to children
nationwide. In districts that thrive and prosper, the relationship between union leaders
and district administrators is strong, carefully cultivated, and mutually trustful.
The old paradigm that historically perpetuated an “us versus them” mentality between
teachers and district leadership has largely given way to new levels of collaboration
and trust, at a time when that context has never been more necessary. If the recent
adoption of ESSA is any indication, the profession is entering a new and long overdue
era in which educators will be empowered to do business in ways that benefit children.
School leaders know better than to subscribe to the belief propagated by some in the
political and business worlds who suggest that teacher unions are more interested in
their members than the children they serve. Strong and viable unions of teachers must
be held accountable for the positions they take, and the vast majority of union rank
and file are happy to do so.
One of the wisest practices of seasoned district leaders is to meet regularly with the
leaders of the local bargaining unit of teachers. Establishing trust is best accomplished
over time. The proactive step of scheduling monthly meetings, and the practice of
welcoming union leaders to discuss issues informally as they arise, are two leadership
behaviors that can help to cultivate the kind of relationships that make culture changes
in a district happen without the rancor that may otherwise obtain.
The negotiations process between the board and teacher unions can represent a
challenge to district officials, who are often in the unenviable position of staking out a
middle ground that can become untenable when talks become contentious. Though
practices vary from state to state and, often, from district to district within a particular
state, the ability for district administrators to remain relatively impartial during contract
negotiations is generally good for the district and certainly good for the people directly
Acting as a shadow advisor to the board or a committee of the board handling direct
negotiations, and thereby preventing concessions that may seem innocuous to the
layperson but are not, is the best way to characterize the proper role of district
leadership in the bargaining process. The vast majority of superintendents once served
as teachers themselves, and that duality can give an air of valid authority to district
leaders who contribute, ideally behind the scenes, to the settlement of contracts.
Union issues most typically occur when administrators forget or otherwise eschew their
instructional roots, resulting in decisions that unwittingly inflame the passions of teachers
and their leadership. That volatility is most common when a contract is unsettled and
remains so for a protracted period of time. A demonstrated levelheadedness from
district leaders is the best way for a difficult situation to be diffused.
School boards, budgets, and teacher unions can all help or hinder the process of
change in any school district. Leadership behavior is one of the most salient factors
contributing to successful change, especially so when handling these three particular
factors that are, to varying degrees, unique to public education.