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Transforming School Culture

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With foreword by Richard DuFour and Rebecca DuFour

Transforming School Culture provides a school improvement plan for leaders to overcome staff division, improve relationships, and transform toxic school cultures into healthy ones.

Dr. Anthony Muhammad contends that in order to transform school culture, we must understand why teachers continue to hold on to models or beliefs contrary to those put forth by their school or district. He explores the human behavior, social conditions, and history that cause the underlying conflict among the four different types of teachers in a school.

The second edition of this best-selling resource delivers powerful new insight into the four types of educators (Believers, Fundamentalists, Tweeners, and Survivors) and how school leaders can work with each group to create positive school culture. The book also includes Dr. Muhammad's latest research as well as a new chapter dedicated to answering frequently asked questions on culture and school leadership in education.

How this new edition will help you create a positive school culture:

  • Study the author's research and observations of 34 schools—11 elementary schools, 14 middle schools, and 9 high schools—and how each school's staff supported or hindered student achievement.
  • Consider the characteristics of positive school cultures and how your school's culture and climate may differ.
  • Learn how laws such as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and No Child Left Behind ( NCLB) impact teachers and school culture.
  • Understand why teachers must work together to improve student performance.
  • Obtain tips for creating a positive school culture and producing synergy.

New in This Second Edition:

  • An updated research base, including over 60 new references
  • Connections to ESSA as well as reflections on NCLB's impact on education
  • Additional insights into the four types of educators
  • Further guidance on what it takes to be a transformational leader and redirect Fundamentalists through communication, trust, capacity, and accountability
  • A new chapter of frequently asked questions in regard to school culture, leadership, and the four types of educators

Chapter 1: From Status Quo to True Reform
Chapter 2: The Framework of Modern School Culture
Chapter 3: The Believers
Chapter 4: The Tweeners
Chapter 5: The Survivors
Chapter 6: The Fundamentalists
Chapter 7: "Drop Your Tools": A Lesson in Change and Our Best Chance at Eliminating Fundamentalism
Chapter 8: Implications for Practice
Chapter 9: Frequently Asked Questions
Appendix: Study Design
References and Resources

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11 Chapters

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1 From Status Quo to True Reform



From Status Quo to True Reform

For more than a century, educators, scholars, politicians, and citizens have debated the purpose of our public school system and how best to reform it. Ironically, our public school system has undergone sweeping changes, yet it has remained largely the same, and there is still a lack of clear consensus about what is needed to ensure that all our schools perform at high levels and all our students achieve success.

Education has traditionally been viewed as the best route for social mobility, but for some young people, this route is not accessible. In fact, an abundance of data on the costs of this failure of our education system shows the system is absolutely broken. This is especially true for students from certain demographic groups who have been traditionally underserved by our school system.

Persistent gaps between white and black citizens in critical areas like income, health, and education have been important issues at the center of debates about equity for a long time. A report from the Pew Research Center (2016) finds that these gaps are as large as ever. Specifically:


2 The Framework of Modern School Culture



The Framework of Modern School Culture

School culture is a complex web of history, psychology, sociology, economics, and political science. To effectively diagnose and eliminate toxic school culture, we must take an honest look at the internal and external factors that create the conditions that make cultural transformation difficult.

Schools in the Era of Accountability

The accountability movement, and No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act in particular, did not create the cultural issues confronting today’s school system. But this new era has brought some deeply rooted belief systems and practices to the forefront for examination, including issues such as how we analyze, staff, and fund schools. Examining the current environment and conditions in our schools can help us understand the myriad paradigms that exist within the walls of our public schools and therefore help us strategize to transform the environment into a healthy one.


3 The Believers



The Believers

We have already learned that there is a high correlation between teacher expectations and student performance. During my study of school culture, one group emerged that possessed the ability to achieve higher levels of student performance and satisfaction in the classroom as compared to its colleagues. Its actions manifested its commitment to student success. This group was composed of seasoned educators (practicing more than three years) who had made a decision to accept a student-centered paradigm as their primary mode of operation, regardless of outside opposition. I call this group the Believers.

I found Believers in every school I visited. Their number and level of influence varied from school to school, but their presence was definitely felt on each campus. It did not matter if the school was high or low performing; each had a set of Believers who fought in many different ways for an ideal learning environment.

Jocelyn A. Butler and Kate M. Dickson’s (1987) study on transformational school cultures identifies twelve characteristics of powerful and positive school cultures.


4 The Tweeners



The Tweeners

A Tweener is anyone who is new to a particular culture. The most common Tweeners in the schools I observed were new educators who had recently graduated from college and were experiencing their first teaching jobs, and, less frequently, educators who had chosen teaching as a second career. I call brand-new educators Level One Tweeners; they made up 91 percent of the educators identified in the Tweener category in this study. But an experienced educator who moves into a new school, district, or job categorization is also a Tweener. I refer to these educators as Level Two Tweeners; because their introduction and socialization into their new environment do not have nearly the impact on school culture as the Level Ones, they are not the focus of this chapter.

My study revealed that a new educator, a Level One Tweener, has an introductory period of two to four years. A Level Two Tweener (one who changes work environments within the field of education) has a shorter introductory period of one to two years. This introductory period is unpredictable. What happens then can shape the career of these educators and the school environments in which they work. Therefore, a Tweener’s primary goal is to find stability within the organization and understand how he or she fits within its cultural and political goals. In this chapter, I’ll discuss Tweeners in regard to:


5 The Survivors



The Survivors

During the course of this study, a small but important group of teachers emerged. This group was not large in number, and in most cases, leaders responded appropriately to their needs. I call this group the Survivors. A Survivor is an educator who has completely given up on practicing effective instruction and has focused his or her energy on a new mission: survival until the end of the school year—and in some cases, the end of the school day. The Survivors made up less than 2 percent of the educators observed in this study, but if gone unchecked, they can have an absolutely devastating impact on their students’ chances of receiving a quality education.

A comprehensive study conducted at the University of Tennessee shows that students assigned to ineffective teachers continue to show the effects of such teachers even when those students are subsequently assigned to very effective teachers (Sanders & Rivers, 1996). The residual effects of both very effective and ineffective teachers are measurable two years later, regardless of the teachers’ effectiveness in later grades. The same study also finds that students who have three effective teachers or three ineffective teachers in a row have vastly different achievement levels. Because of differences in teacher effectiveness, students whose achievement levels were similar in mathematics at the beginning of third grade scored 50 percentile points apart on fifth-grade achievement tests just three years later. Poor and ineffective instruction can completely undermine the school’s fundamental mission. This is why leaders must remove teachers who have become burnt-out or depressed from the classroom and address their issues. It is what is best for the student as well as the teacher.


6 The Fundamentalists



The Fundamentalists

Of the four types of educators I observed in schools and classrooms during my study, the two with the most influence and importance to school culture are the Believers and the Fundamentalists. A Fundamentalist is an experienced educator who believes that there is one pure and undisputable way to practice: the traditional model of schooling. Fundamentalists are the vanguards of tradition and protect the status quo. They are relentless in their attempts to discourage change and protect a system that has allowed them to function and thrive, and they organize to protect this traditional way of practice. Their experiences have led them to believe that the traditional model of schooling is the best and purest model. It is the system that was used to educate them, and it is the system they were socialized into when they became new professionals. They have learned that system’s rules, and they understand how it functions and how to excel within it. They view change itself as an enemy; therefore, anyone who challenges the system is a threat to the system and a threat to the Fundamentalists. They are the most aggressive and vocal combatants in this war of ideology.


7 “Drop Your Tools”: A Lesson in Change and Our Best Chance at Eliminating Fundamentalism



“Drop Your Tools”: A Lesson in Change and Our Best Chance at Eliminating Fundamentalism

The primary problem in a toxic school culture is an inability to properly respond to challenges and adversity. Educators in such a culture become stagnant, and their stagnation can be the catalyst for regression. Fundamentalists’ resistance to change maintains the status quo when schools should be ahead of the curve and actively seeking strategies that will allow them to fulfill their ultimate goal to the best of their ability: universal student achievement.

So in their attempt to evolve and develop a productive school culture without staff division, schools must consider two key questions.

1.  What is the right change for us to embrace?

2.  How do we get all staff members to embrace this change and actively apply the right methods once we have identified them?

In Good to Great, Jim Collins (2001) calls the process of answering these questions getting the right people on the bus. Stephen Covey (2013) describes this process as synergy, which combines the words synchronization and energy. According to Covey (2013), when all an organization’s members have their missions and purposes aligned and combine that alignment with energy, they create a powerful force.


8 Implications for Practice



Implications for Practice

When analyzing organizations, especially schools, it becomes clear that meaningful and productive growth is primarily a function of the cohesion of human resources. Technical or structural changes can certainly aid this process, but if the human factors are not healthy, growth and transformation become very difficult. This book has made a case for understanding why schools have such a difficult time changing when members of the culture cannot accept new paradigms that do not mesh with the traditional operation of schools.

Unfortunately, many school leaders find themselves underprepared to deal with all the diverse aspects of school leadership, especially as it pertains to developing a healthy school culture (DuFour, 2001). This chapter will focus on practical methods that both administrators and teachers can use to loosen the grip of their Fundamentalists, overcome staff division, and focus the school on its primary purpose: student learning.


9 Frequently Asked Questions



Frequently Asked Questions

Since the release of the first edition of Transforming School Culture in 2009, I have received hundreds of emails and messages full of questions about school culture, the Transforming School Culture framework, and education in general. I replied to all questions and saved them. Many questions were similar, so I paraphrased them and the answers in this chapter. The questions and answers focus on school culture, leadership, Believers, Tweeners, Survivors, and Fundamentalists.

I want this book to provide a mirror for the education profession and force people to question the status quo. Change and improvement are inseparable. I am grateful to all the people who have read this book and took the time to sincerely seek answers to their questions, even the questions and feedback that were slightly challenging.

School Culture

The following questions and answers are associated with general inquiries about school culture and its impact on school performance.


Epilogue: A Significant Impact



A Significant Impact

As a former teacher and administrator, I can appreciate the challenges that educators face on a daily basis. It is not easy to work with students from diverse backgrounds and value systems and still create the harmonious school ethos and shared value system that the public expects. But if we are to be a society that mirrors this expectation we have of schools—diverse, just, and harmonious—we must transform our public school system to accomplish this end.

The purpose of this book is to stimulate conversation and inspire educators to analyze the impact of their belief systems on their practices and how those practices impact their students. When students are nurtured in a culture where educators believe in their potential to do the extraordinary and work together to achieve this end, all students can be successful. This goal is hard to accomplish if the school staff is divided into four political groups with four different agendas. In a school culture where educators are aware of stereotypes, historical injustices, and the effects of being socialized in a class-based society, they are better prepared to create a healthy, nurturing environment for students—whether that school is located in an economically affluent suburb or in a housing project in an economically depressed inner city.


Appendix: Study Design



Study Design

The foundation of the Transforming School Culture framework is a result of the study identified in this appendix. The insights provided in the second edition are intended to provide an updated context for the findings of the original study to ensure that they continue to be relevant for years to come.


This study was conducted by collecting data from thirty-four public schools in the United States scattered across four regions—East, Midwest, South, and West. (See table A.1 on pages 158–159.) The study included eleven elementary schools, fourteen middle schools, and nine high schools. These schools ranged in student enrollment from small (200–400) to medium (401–1,000) to large (1,001-plus). Student socioeconomic status spanned poor (over 50 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunch) to moderate (10–49 percent) to affluent (9 percent or less). Student racial population ranged from diverse (more than two racial groups of 25 percent or more) to moderate (three or more racial groups of 10 percent or more) to homogeneous (one racial group comprising more than 90 percent of student population).



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