The Intractable Power of School Cultures: Why Teachers Resist Chancellors and School Culture Determines Quality Education.

 The Chancellor dubs the new principal on each shoulder with the ceremonial sword of leadership, grants him/her the scepter and the orb, and they stride onto the stage before the faculty, who snickers at the ermine clothed principal. Leadership is earned, not granted.

A just released report by Public Agenda finds that 40% of teachers nationally define themselves as “disheartened.”
the Disheartened, … which accounts for 40 percent of K-12 teachers in the United States, tend to have been teaching longer and be older than the Idealists. More than half teach in low-income schools. They are more likely to voice high levels of frustration about the school administration, disorder in the classroom, and an undue focus on testing. Only 14 percent rated their principals as “excellent” at supporting them as teachers …
I would say that the percent of the “disheartened” is much larger in New York City. An unintended consequence of the Joel Klein “reform” agenda has been to alienate teachers, create toxic school cultures and empower the teacher union both at the school and the city-wide level. Randi Weingarten’s brilliance has been to seize upon the discontent of her members and build strong, adversarial union chapters in schools and a powerful force on the city stage.
School culture is the behind-the-scenes context that reflects the values, beliefs, norms, traditions, and rituals that build up over time as people in a school work together.

It influences not only the actions of the school population, but also its motivations and spirit (Peterson, 1999).

One of the ironies is that union activism and collegial school cultures are an inverse function. A highly effective school with a totally collaborative culture has a school secretary as the chapter leader, whose sole role is to post union notices on the bulletin board.  Another school that uses lead teachers instead of assistant principals, a school in which teachers design and run the professional development, elects a chapter leader with little actual function. Schools with vibrant active chapters are frequently schools with toxic school cultures.

School cultures are thought to be located on a continuum, ranging from bureaucratic to collegial culture. And there is one type of school culture known as the “toxic culture” that is a death knell for longevity of teaching careers and an instigator of high teacher turnover in a school. The toxic culture is evident in a negative ambience where dissatisfaction is highly palpable.

Beginners in isolated settings soon abandon their initial humanistic notions about tending to students’ individual needs in favor of a routine technical culture characterized by a more custodial view, where order is stressed over learning, and where students are treated more impersonally, punitively and distrustfully. (Rosentholtz, 1991, p 73)

The Klein model lauds their increases in standardized test scores and graduation rates and points to an emphasis on accountability, the empowerment of principals and a focus on data through the Inquiry Team approach. In reality they have created toxic school cultures.

The disastrous NAEP math scores in New York State have deflated the claims of success by the chancellor. The widespread use of highly suspect unregulated credit recovery school-based programs question graduation rate figures. The State Ed Department has proposals before it to “tighten up” credit recovery.

Only 57% of 8th graders, as per Department data, with a score of 3.0 (proficient) on the State ELA test graduate within four years. Dropout rates in the City University (CUNY) system among NYC high school graduates are staggering.  The phasing out of the local diploma and replacement by the Regents diploma has NOT prepared students for college and especially for the highly competitive world of work.

Thomas Friedman in his NY Times column, quoting author Daniel Pink hits the “nail on the head,”

In a world in which more and more average work can be done by a computer, robot or talented foreigner faster, cheaper “and just as well,” vanilla doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s all about what chocolate sauce, whipped cream and cherry you can put on top. So our schools have a doubly hard task now — not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.

Bottom line: We’re not going back to the good old days without fixing our schools as well as our banks.

Principals are empowered by their staffs not by the Leadership Academy. Highly effective schools are schools in which the line between supervisor and teacher, between leaders and the lead are blurred. School cultures cannot be imposed. Angry, disheartened teachers close their doors and go through the motions. They may produce adequate scores on standardized tests, but, are they creating educated students? Students prepared to compete in this new economy?

“Accountable” schools and data-driven classroom instruction is not antithetical to a collegial school culture. Raising the bar so that the advanced eight Regents diploma is the standard requires schools in which the entire staff, from school leader, to teachers, to support staff, all have a voice and a vested interest in the success of all students.

Tom Friedman is absolutely right, we must produce “innovative and creative” students, that can only be done in school with an “innovative and creative” staff.

2 responses to “The Intractable Power of School Cultures: Why Teachers Resist Chancellors and School Culture Determines Quality Education.

  1. Pingback: Remainders: History-focused candidates may be numbing voters | GothamSchools

  2. What would happen if all New York City high school students were required to learn how to write an essay rather than take the English Regents Exam? In lieu of test prep, students could actually learn the art of persuasion. Look at the directions of the exam — bold print and italics just in case our eleventh graders have not written enough cookie cutter five paragraph essays that agree “or” disagree. Is there a particular reason the Regents Exam refers to a “controlling idea” instead of a thesis statement? “Critical lens?” How about “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” so that the teachers stuck grading these redundant submissions might actually stick around? What happens to our students in their first year of college when they see a ten page typed essay in the syllabus? Does the mediocrity of their state’s high school education graduation requirements permeate their minds at that particular moment? Or is it more palpable when their perception of what they hoped was an essay is then returned with “D- No thesis”? Of course our students are dropping out of college. That’s what happens when we prepare the wonderful students of this great city for the fifth grade.


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