There are no “silver bullets” or “magic pills” when it comes to changing a school.
There is no one thing that can be done, no standard blueprint, no Harry Potter spell that can be executed that will make a struggling school turn its fortune around overnight.
Rather, transforming schools is a process – one that has to have the investment of all people involved: administrators, teachers, and students.
That process is rooted in school culture.
Culture – noun cul·ture \ ˈkəl-chər \ :t he set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization (merriam-webster.com)
That definition suggests multiple variables: “attitudes,” “values,” “goals,” and “practices.” They are “shared,” clearly outlined, nurtured, practiced, modeled, and embraced.
Most schools have one principal and perhaps multiple assistant principals who can set a tone and attitude for the school. But the most effective school administrators are the ones who do not see teachers as an extension of authority or executors of mandates. The most effective school administrators view teachers as the very foundation of what makes a positive school culture.
Those same effective school administrators look to remove obstacles for teachers so that they can do what they do best: teach and help students.
In today’s data-driven world and over-reliance on bottom lines, it is easy to judge schools by a series of standardized, yet nebulous measurements such as ACT scores, EOCT proficiency rates, or even EVAAS projections. To say that those measures do not have any merit is not the point. They do, but to a smaller degree than other variables, ones fostered by school culture.
Positive school culture celebrates the process, not just a score on a test. It focuses on the actions taken to improve all measurable and immeasurable outcomes. It sees the student as a person, an individual, not as a test-taker. It values the roles of the teachers and honors the relationships that each teacher makes with the students. It includes student and parent involvement, the student section, the quality of the yearbook, the number of kids in extracurricluars, and the willingness of a community to support them.
Look at the number of teachers who come early and stay late, who attend events in the school that are not academic. Look at the students who come for tutoring and ask for help because they feel free to advocate for themselves.
Listen to the announcements and see what is celebrated. Look who wears apparel that reflects school spirit.
Look at teacher-turnover rates, student dropout rates, and workplace condition surveys.
When the only valued measure of a school becomes data points whose formulas are never fully revealed, then what happens is that blind faith in algorithms and conversions is greater than the trust in the human capital that is the life force of the school.
Find a principal who can fully explain the algorithms used by SAS to come up with EVAAS predictors. Find a county administrator or a state officer who can.
Find the ACT report that breaks down every strand and standard for each missed question and totally reveals how each student did on each question so complete that it can be used to help remediate.
Find a state or local benchmark test whose answers can be validated by any administrator or teacher having to use it.
Yet in many of those cases, those standardized ways of measuring students have become so much more the focus of many schools and administrators which in turn forces schools to look only at bottom lines and manufactured outcomes. That approach easily dismisses the human element.
Students are human.
Teachers are human.
Administrators are human.
And school culture is driven by students and teachers and nurtured by administrators. It is not measured by numbers, but by atmosphere, attitude, and shared visions. That takes time, effort, communication, and trust. It is something that starts from the inside and grows outward, not the other way round.
There is no “silver bullet” to make that happen.
There is no “magic pill” to swallow.
For schools to have a positive school culture there must be a strong faith in a process that creates a better outcome the more it is practiced. The more input that comes from those invested in the process, the more investment overall.
And when those who are in a school that wants to improve help to create an organic, dynamic culture that celebrates the student/teacher relationship and understands that all positive outcomes cannot be really quantified, then something that is actually magical does appear: a great school.
Besides, we do not need any more bullets in schools. We really do not.