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3 Steps to Changing the Culture of a School or a District - SchoolWealth, Inc.


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How can a school or district change culture and improve morale? What are the results? Who is involved? And, why?

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3 Steps to Changing the Culture of a School or a District - SchoolWealth, Inc.

  1. 1. 3 Steps to Changing the Culture of a School or a District Created By :
  2. 2. 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.
  3. 3. 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 budgetary environment.
  4. 4. 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.
  5. 5. 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 settings. 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
  6. 6. 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 involved. 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.
  7. 7. 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.