Changing School Culture

Facing History and Ourselves sponsored a breakfast meeting on “The Challenges and Opportunities of Turning Around School Culture” here in Denver this week. Dr. Rob Stein and Peter Sherman, two Colorado-based educators, spoke about their experiences in turning around struggling schools. Although we at Evergreen have not been involved in school turnarounds per se, in our work implementing blended learning programs we often find cultural and organizational issues to be more of a challenge than the online content, technology, or data systems. Many of the lessons being learned in the school turnaround world can be applied to online and blended learning implementations, especially when those implementations are across an entire school or district. In our work with schools and districts that are implementing online and blended programs, we start by having program leaders identify the educational challenge they are working to solve. Some challenges impact some students (increase AP course options) while others impact most students (increase student test scores / graduation rates by differentiating instruction). Regardless, almost all program implementations will involve shifting school culture to some degree.

The lessons the speakers presented that are particularly relevant to online and blended learning include:

  • Establish a school-wide culture, not just a classroom-based culture: Especially at the high school level, students need to know that expectations and language are shared across all classrooms in the school. If one blended class has a very different culture from another blended class or a non-blended class, it is harder for a student to know how to be successful. Also, to the extent that a blended program starts small but is planned to extend widely, there is a clear need for the cultural and organizational changes to be broad.
  • Build relationships: Change is scary! When you develop relationships with your students, teachers, staff, and parents, it makes it easier for them to get involved, ask questions, and grow with you. We often find that teachers, students, and parents may have misconceptions about the program being implemented. The most common issue we hear is “We don’t want (students) to learn from a computer.” We often have to stress the critical role of the teacher, and it’s much better done in a proactive way instead of after inaccurate criticisms have been raised.
  • Be wary of incremental change: If the goal is to transform the educational experience, is incremental change enough? Even though much money has been invested in educational technology over the last few decades, in most cases it did not have a significant impact on student learning. The goal with online and blended learning is to implement high-quality, transformational programs that improve student outcomes; this likely requires more than incremental change. With that said, acknowledging incremental improvements builds morale and keeps everyone focused on the goal.
  • Have fun!: I really like this one, as it is a reminder that we should enjoy what we do each and every day, even as we are working hard to shift culture and create change. Learning should be fun—for both students and teachers.