We Build Sustaining Systems by Marrying Culture and Structure

Erich Bolz and Sean Slade
August, 2023

Originally published in the CEE Blog, this article focuses on the value of collaboration and unity in purpose.

Can you relate to Caterina Fake? “So often people are working hard at the wrong thing. Working on the right thing is probably more important than working hard.” Inherently, educators set student achievement goals. We put structures in place to monitor academic data attempting to meet those targets (policy driven) and end up distancing ourselves from the vital school conditions that lead us to significant changes in student achievement. This may explain why school improvement policy efforts in the United States have failed over the past two decades.

Student success starts with school culture. In the United States, school improvement policy has failed to recognize this fundamental. Still, some students and schools succeed despite poor policy. Why is this? CEE spent 18 months researching this question and released a seminal study in 2021 after collecting quantitative and qualitative data from district and building administrators in the 38 schools that beat the odds. These schools created the optimal conditions (Characteristics of Positive Outlier Schools Study) for revealing students’ strengths and enhancing student success, and most of these conditions are within reach of any school.

  • Catalyst for change - the greater school community commits and is ready to change
  • Staff readiness and willingness to benefit – trust is in place while staff are empowered in the process
  • Sustainability - planning is in place to allow for continued growth

These conditions are foundational for change to be successful and most reflect a positive school culture that views change and growth as a positive. These common conditions are not surprising, yet seldom seen in schools around the country. According to Chuck Salina and Suzann Girtz, authors of the book Powerless to Powerful: Leadership for School Change and Transforming Schools through Systems Change, a lack of readiness is a familiar issue. “Much of (their school improvement) framework feels intuitive, like common sense; however, it has not led to common practice.”

Creating a school culture ready for change becomes everyday practice when leaders “support student and teacher learning,” suggests Suzann. Environments ready for change have often strong cultures of trust, empowerment, and a willingness to question the status quo. Chuck, in the Outliers in Education podcast, emphasized that “School leaders must focus on behaviors that encourage people to believe in each other. Using data is not enough.”

The culture is key. Staff and community who do not feel part of the process, or do not understand the reason for any change and how they (and the school) will benefit, may comply but not commit to change. This behavior leads to stalled or failed initiatives. If the school has not developed a culture of trust, it won’t succeed. As Suzann stated - conveying Peter Drucker’s wisdom - “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.”

When relational trust is in place, building and maintaining systems and structures (e.g., Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, Professional Learning Communities and Multi-tiered Systems of Support) become easier. Learn more about measuring culture.

But how do we develop and grow trust to start with? We focus on our interactions, our reactions, and our connections with others in our school. Our culture comes from each of us and the ways we converse and collaborate. Every school has a school culture–formed by intention or adopted by proxy.

And if we wanted to pinpoint this starting point, we would start focusing on the interactions that take place between and with our school leaders. School leaders–principals and administrators-have a greater influence over school culture than others, often because they set the tone, model accepted behavior, and give educational credibility to any new venture. If the principal raises issues or presents the need for change, staff hear the message. We cannot underestimate the need for school leader ownership in formulating a positive and trusting school culture. We, therefore, need to focus our initial attention on the ability of school leaders to communicate, collaborate, and lead.

But another barrier exists. Sean Slade, Head of Education, North America for BTS Spark, understands that “Most school leaders will rarely invest in themselves to develop their leadership skills” Why? There are two reasons. One is that school leaders and educators deflect attention, shining it on others rather than on themselves. So, we must drive home the message to school leaders that improving their own leadership skills is critical for the growth of the school and the school community. And because “the daily grind of school demands their attention and can feel like leadership.” But true leadership is not only about taking action and getting work done now. It also requires a focus on what gets done tomorrow, next month, and next year to continuously improve the school.

Chuck and Suzann documented the impact of coaching on student outcomes in their work at Sunnyside High School. Chuck gained confidence and new skills as the principal.

School leaders from Surrey Schools, British Columbia, Canada, that engaged in leadership coaching with BTS Spark, found improvements in their resilience, visioning, and relationship development.

Let’s work hard on the right things and acknowledge what improves success. When districts measure and access culture data and deeply implement a school improvement framework, we see continuous school improvement. When we add a focus on enhancing the culture, the leadership skills of the school leader, and provide the help of a coach, we increase the chances of long-term success. We build sustaining systems by marrying culture and structure. Too often, we address structure without addressing the school culture.