THE BLOG

Why School Culture Matters, and How to Improve It

04/10/2013 08:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2013

From elementary school to high school, school choice is an integral part of U.S. urban education today. In New York City, eighth graders just learned if they'd been accepted into one of their top high school selections, and in the coming weeks, families will learn where their children will be attending kindergarten in the fall.

When families finally do find out, it will mark the end of what is often a months-long process that involved visiting schools and ranking their picks. That ranking was based on any number of dimensions, including the school's rating, location, and neighborhood. But I'm sure that when they chose their favorites, the school's culture was just as important as its scores.

Culture is intangible, but it's essential: you can walk into a school and know immediately whether you want to be there or not. The same thing goes for the students, and the staff.

But just because culture is intangible doesn't mean that it's undefinable; Nadine Engels and her co-writers describe "a shared sense of purpose and values, norms of continuous learning and improvement, collaborative collegial relationships... and sharing experiences" as factors that contribute to a positive school culture. Innovation, leadership, teamwork, and "goal-orientedness" are also important.

That sounds like the ideal school to me (if not the ideal work environment). Imagining a school that embodies those values, it's easy to see why Engles wrote that school culture "has an effect on students' learning," and why education reform leader Michael Fullan argued that principals should prioritize their school's culture over everything else.

But knowing that school culture is important and even knowing what makes for good school culture doesn't guarantee that principals will be able to create it. In fact, principals are at a decided disadvantage when it comes to creating organization-wide change: a recent Education Week story notes that most principal training provides "less focus on the skills and strategies for creating a workplace culture, which are more commonly found in management training for other industries."

Instead, principals often try to tackle individual symptoms (like attendance, graduation rates, and grades) rather than addressing their cause. And when principals do try to shift a school's culture, one of the problems they typically encounter is that they first act without getting stake-holders' buy-in first.

That's a mistake: having every member of a school community -- teachers, students, family members -- work together toward a shared vision is just as important as the vision itself. John Brown and Cerylle Moffett write that without that buy-in, a school leader's vision becomes "mandates without meaning" that costs principals the "support [school leaders] need most."

For businesses, creating the right culture is essential for the bottom line. Google famously encourages its engineers to take 20 percent of their time to pursue a new project that they're passionate about. Why? Because it makes those engineers work even better: Gmail, Google News, and the WiFi-equipped buses that bring Google employees to work all arose from that 20 percent time.

If you think that investing that much time -- and ultimately money -- to fund 'pet projects' isn't worth it, think again: Google reported earning $14.2 billion last quarter, and hitting $50 billion in revenue last year.

Or take JetBlue Airways. Its famous brand is an extension of its corporate culture -- and a selling point for its customers.

The airline lives up to its values, particularly by investing in talent and delivering on customer service. But equally important is the fact that the airline's leadership creates a tight-knit team that works together: President and CEO Dave Barger greets new employees by saying: "I'm Dave. It's a first-name-basis airline. My door is open."

The result of that deliberate cultural strategy is a growing airline -- and growing revenues. And as a PENCIL Partner, Barger applied the same managerial and organizational principles to help then Principal Monica George take PS 153 from failing to a model of success.

Obviously, school leaders can't always mimic businesses -- but they can learn from them. When business leaders teach principals the skills that they use to build a strong organizational culture, school leaders can completely transform their schools.

I already mentioned Dave Barger, who helped Principal George and PS 153 cut teacher attrition from 25 percent to 3 percent, and raise the school's grades on the NYC progress Report from an "F" to an "A."

But Barger is just one example: through PENCIL's school-business partnerships, business people are helping principals throughout New York City turn their schools into vibrant communities. At PS 330Q in Queens, Principal LaShawnna Harris is working with Morrison Healthcare's Charles LaMonica on a coordinated approach to establish a more positive school culture and improved results. By emphasizing team-building and professional development among the school staff, the two partners are promoting Harris' vision of a unified school community that's founded on the school's values. And the staff appreciation days that Harris and LaMonica have brought to the school are a small but significant way of thanking the staff for the work that they do on behalf of students.

Since LaMonica and Harris began working together, the school has seen a 22-point increase in the percentage of teachers who believe that the principal communicates a clear vision of the school, as well as a 43-point increase in the percentage of teachers who feel supported by Principal Harris.

At PS 48, Principal Pat Mitchell has seen her school's scores go up on both the Progress Report and the Learning Environment Survey. To continue this recent progress -- and to ensure that the rest of the school community is on board with her new direction -- Principal Mitchell worked with marketing consultant Ruth Zsolnai on new vision and mission statements that capture the school's new ideals. They've also worked together on a new logo, brand, and marketing materials that communicate and symbolize those ideals.

Zsolnai and View Higher Pictures also worked together to make the following video to re-ignite school pride, and to recruit new supporters and partners:

We need to help more principals get the same support that principals George, Harris, and Mitchell did. We also need to ensure that all principals receive the professional development that they need to assess, create, and refine school culture; they also need to know how to effectively 'sell' that vision to their school community. Because whether it's in a school or a business, organizational culture is like the air that we breathe: invisible, intangible, and absolutely vital.