HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Assessing and Improving Your School’s Culture

by Christopher R. Wagner, Ph.D. Issue: Too Jewish? Not Jewish Enough?
TOPICS : Community

A central office administrator recently told me that one of his schools was becoming more like Iraq everyday. Relationships were ragged, achievement was on the decline, there were a number of tribes within the school who hated each other, and the leader was in hiding! He had correctly determined that the problems were not caused by a lack of curriculum development, poor teaching modalities, or “bad” teachers, students and parents. The problem was that the culture of the school was in disrepair.

Assessing and improving a school’s culture is fast becoming a significant strategy in the arsenal of school improvement efforts. For school leaders who have assessed their school’s culture, there is often the realization that it should have been the first improvement strategy to be implemented. How can we quickly and accurately assess a school’s culture, and then, how can the culture be improved is the major thrust of this article. First, some background on culture research.

What is the connection between culture and schools?

The origin of the study of cultures in a formalized manner began in the academic discipline of social anthropology. Understanding the rituals, traditions, stories, and shared beliefs of past and contemporary societies serves as the foundation for all cultural research. Historic research on cultural topics, e.g. religion, art, language, law, leadership, business, industry, etc. have continued to emphasize the connections between culture and organizational development. While the study of culture in educational organizations is a much more recent development, those educators who have embraced the concept have been conditioned to perceive school through a much different set of lenses.

What is measured when assessing a school’s culture?

Studies by the National School Improvement Project, the Center for Improving School Culture, and over 30 independent research projects on school culture have narrowed the many facets of organizational culture – in this case, school culture – into three significant behaviors. They are:

Professional Collaboration:

Teachers and other staff meet together regularly to solve instructional, organizational, and/or curricular issues;

Collegial Relationships: Evidence of people working together, supporting one another, feeling valued and included, a sense of family and belonging;


People are in this school because they want to be. They work to improve their skills as professionals. They do not see themselves as victims of a large uncaring bureaucracy.

What is learned by measuring these “culture behaviors?”

Where these behaviors exist in a school to a great degree as measured by the School Culture Triage Survey (SCTS), the culture of the school is usually healthy. Where these behaviors do not exist to a great degree as measured by the SCTS, the culture is usually toxic. The research is clear and has revealed stunning correlations between the health of a school’s culture and student achievement, staff job satisfaction, and parent engagement. We have found this to be true in every study to date, including the participation of over 5100 elementary, middle, and high schools across the U.S. and Canada. Perhaps the most important finding in our study of school culture is that it is dynamic and can be changed.

What is the best way to administer the survey?

We encourage you to use the SCTS in your school but, PLEASE, don’t just “give” the survey without using the following tips for its administration:

  1. At a faculty meeting, simply administer the School Culture Triage Survey Without The Scoring Sheet. We just ask teachers to complete the survey without any explanation. Have someone other than the school secretary or administrator collect the surveys. To ensure the best results, there must be an ironclad guarantee of anonymity (no names).
  2. Gather a small group of teachers to tabulate the results making an item-by-item analysis. I use an EXCEL program to make charts and graphs. Teachers, especially left-brain, linear thinkers, LOVE to look at and analyze the results.
  3. At the next faculty meeting, show the faculty the results of the survey. Be sure they all have copies of the survey items to use as a reference.
  4. Call attention to and celebrate high scoring items. Divide into groups for the purpose of establishing school culture goals for the next few months based on identified areas that need improvement. Come to group consensus on two or three (maximum) of the items suggested for improvement.
  5. Develop an action plan to improve the areas identified. Include a timeline, people responsible and a vision (the best it can be) for each area.
  6. If you plan on administering the survey in the fall, let everyone know that you will be conducting the survey again about mid-year and again toward the end of the academic year.
  7. Celebrate improvements and recognize successes, continue to monitor. (Some schools administer the SCTS three times per year.)

A school’s culture is much like a personal relationship. It takes constant maintenance to make it lasting, vibrant and meaningful. The enculturation of a philosophy of continuous improvement begins with an environment that values every member of the organization, celebrates successes, holds on to the “good” traditions and discards the “bad” traditions, but mostly, one that encourages and supports strong professional and personal relationships within the learning community.”

Please visit our website, www.schoolculture.net for more information.

Christopher R. Wagner, Ph.D. is a professor of Educational Administration at Western Kentucky University and director of the Center for Improving School Culture. Christopher can be contacted at Cischoolculture@aol.com..

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