How can the culture of a school be changed?

I threw this question out on Twitter a week or so ago and got a fair number of responses.

One of the most reasoned responses came from Edna Sackson, an educator from Australia and the author of the blog What Ed Said. Edna shares many of my views on the importance of inquiry and we have collaborated from across the globe to create the blog Inquire Within.

Edna decided to open up the proverbial can of worms in a blog post and I will respond to it here.

Dear Edna,

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my question in such detail! I think the interest in this question likely stems from the fact that it is a question that we absolutely must answer in education. It relates to the current roiling debates about education reform in the U.S. and abroad.

A little background – I’ve taught for nearly 6 years at a small public high school on an American Indian reservation in Washington State. Our school enrollment consists of 90+% minorities, 90+% free and reduced lunch, and 20+% or our students have been officially classified as homeless. This is a difficult situation for anyone to teach in.

We’ve been in “school improvement” since before I arrived here due to scores on the state standardized assessments and our dropout/ graduation rates. In this time, I’ve experienced several reform efforts. I’ve had 3 superintendents and 4 principals.

Let that sink in for a second…

3 superintendents and 4 principals.

In 6 years.

No wonder we haven’t been able to establish a clear and consistent school culture!

My question stemmed from this experience but it also goes deeper. I really want to know what is working out there – without the media scrubbing or Gates Foundation brainwashing. I want to know the real details, without the slant that school administrators (their jobs are on the line, after all!) put on the progress of their school when faced with media interest.

When a “failing school” is truly turned around (not just test scores), what is the process?

What shifts take place that prepare kids for a life beyond high school while also keeping them in school?

How do we honor the uniqueness of every student while ensuring that each is developing a skill set and knowledge base that will prepare them for higher learning and responsible, informed citizenship?


I agree with you about establishing learning principles. I believe that this is critical. It creates common language for both teachers and students to use about the culture and focus of the school.

My school is headed in that direction, and yet, I have a fear nagging in the back of my mind – the group creating our learning principles does not include all teachers.

One thing I KNOW about teachers in our school is that we cannot agree about how students should be taught. Especially when it comes to inquiry and student-centered instruction!

Many of our teachers are very teacher/textbook-centric in their instructional methods. They look upon teachers like myself in one of two ways, either (1) I am too “loosey-goosey” and don’t teach the “fundamentals” properly, or (2) what I do is okay for me but too hard for them to replicate. Furthermore, our recent school reform efforts have caused many teachers to become more “traditional” and teach their classes in a more teacher centered, drill-and-kill style.

So, whenever we talk about instruction, we go in circles about how to do it.

This is not working for our students.


I think the real question here is how to go about creating learning principles that are the “right” principles while also getting all teachers to buy in? We know you can’t force people to buy in to anything. So, how do you get everyone on the same page?


What I want from my union

I have the utmost respect for unions.

I don’t blame teacher’s unions for problems in education.

That being said, I do believe there are problems.

Obviously, there are funding problems. I’ve seen those first hand. I work on the front lines of education, a rural school on an Indian reservation in an area of extreme poverty – I mean third-world caliber poverty. 90+% of my students are ethnic minorities. 90+% qualify for free and reduced lunch. 30% can be classified as homeless. We have one of the smallest levies our the state. The kids absolutely need and deserve more funding.

Yet, I know we can do better.

With the resources we have.

With the staff we have.

We must do better.

Students trudge from class to class learning from boring, outdated textbooks (mine, which I haven’t used in years, are from 1990 – they are older than my students). They are bored to tears by [lecture, worksheet, test, repeat]- style instruction in many classes.

It’s time to break the mould!

Let’s crush this outdated model and banish it to the recesses of our collective memories to become only the fodder of bad horror movies and lame teenage soap operas.

But, how?

I want my union to stop being a union and become something more.

Before it’s too late.

The major teacher’s unions, the NEA and the AFT must wrest control of the situation away from politicians and business interests. Rebrand ourselves as true professional associations lest our associations be destroyed.

Take the power back.

  • Set standards for effective instruction based on research and member collective wisdom.
  • Set standards for association membership.
  • Evaluate our own members.
  • Prescribe assistance for those who need it.
  • Mentor new teachers.
  • Design and facilitate effective professional development.
  • Revoke membership for those who choose not to improve.
  • Protect those who do.

Let’s not let people who have never taught a day in their life chart the course of education reform. It’s time for preemptive action. The opportunity won’t linger forever. Reform is proceeding forward one way or the other.

The question we must ask ourselves is this:

Are we driving the reform train or waiting on the platform, hoping it doesn’t pass us by?

Teach to the test?

This is a second follow-up to my guest post at Dangerously Irrelevant.  Thanks again to Scott McLeod for the opportunity to guest!

Twitter commentary on my guest post at Dangerously Irrelevant and a couple of the comments there, made me want to follow up.

I teach at one of the poorest schools in the State of Washington.  We are a small, rural public school on an Indian reservation.  Increased state pressure and intervention has actually widened the achievement gap in our school and others like it.

Teaching to the test may work (on the short term) with predominantly White, middle-class students who are motivated by grades and the promise of college.  These type of children tend to accept education as it was delivered to their parents and grandparents.  Never mind the negative effect teaching to the test has on higher-order thinking skills and creativity.

No matter your criteria, teaching to the test does not work with poor, minority students.  Show me successes at schools like KIPP and I’ll show you serious flaws in their data.  If school does not engage them, they drop out.  Is that what we want?

If good instruction doesn’t raise test scores, then the test is flawed, not the instruction.  For those who are facing pressure to raise test scores, I have a few suggestions:

  1. Do your homework and be prepared to effectively defend your practice.  Do lots of research on effective instructional practices.  Read “How People Learn“, “Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards“, “Results Now“, everything by Alfie Kohn, and more.
  2. Become National Board Certified – this gains you a lot of credibility with administrators and your board of directors.  Nobody wants to fire a National Board Certified Teacher.  I do very open-ended inquiry-based instruction in my classroom.  I achieved National Board Certification in 1 year and found the standards of that process to be 100% aligned with my instructional methods.
  3. Base your instruction around state standards.  You are in a very defensible position if you can clearly demonstrate that you are aligning your instruction to the standards that are purportedly on the state assessment.  You are required to teach to the standards; you are not required to teach to the test.

If none of this works, maybe you should find a different school to teach at.  If my working conditions were unbearable and I was being asked to do things that I had strong moral objections to, I would go work somewhere else.

Am I pro-union?

This is a follow-up to my guest post at Dangerously Irrelevant.  Thanks again to Scott McLeod for the opportunity to guest!

The twitter commentary on my guest post at Dangerously Irrelevant, and a couple of the comments found there, I felt the need to follow up.

Am I pro-union?  Not necessarily.  Nor am I anti-union.

I am 100%, unequivocally pro-student.

Does that mean I don’t appreciate the purpose of value of a teacher’s union?  No.

What it means is that a teacher’s union is an organization, not unlike “the State” or “the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.”  An organization, while composed of people, is not human.  I do not believe that I am accountable to any organization.  I am accountable to each and every human being with a genuine stake in what happens in my classroom.  That means my students and their families.  No one else.

Was my post meant to be pro-union?  Absolutely not.

I believe it is inaccurate to say that the purpose of the teacher’s union is to protect teachers who have their students’ best interests at heart.  The sole purpose of the teacher’s union is to negotiate the best possible collective bargaining agreement for its membership and to steadfastly protect that agreement.  As a democratic organization, no one of its members is more or less important or valuable than any other.  Therefore, the “worst” teacher and the “best” teacher will be protected with equal vigor.

Maybe it’s time for the union members to start self evaluating members and supporting those who are struggling.  Unions could begin culling out those who refuse that support (or make no progress).  Rather than leaving that job to administrators and legislators, we could take control of the process, the procedure and the persons involved.  The union could become a self-governing body, not unlike the American Medical Association.

To whom are we accountable?

This is my guest post at Dangerously Irrelevant on 9/25


As a husband, I am accountable to my wife, not to the county in which our marriage license was issued.

As a father, I am accountable to my children, not to the State.

As a teacher, to whom am I accountable?  Am I accountable to the State?  Or am I accountable to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction?  Maybe I’m accountable to the board of directors for my school district – aka, my employer?  Perhaps I’m accountable my superintendent or my principal?  Could it be that I’m accountable to my colleagues?

The answer to all of these questions is a resounding, “NO!”

I am accountable to the past, present, and future of each and every child who enters my classroom.

I am accountable to my students as learners and as human beings.  I am accountable to my students’ families.  Children are not vessels to fill with standards and 21st Century skills, but rather living, breathing people with immense potential.  My job is to nuture and enhance that potential.  Every interaction with a student is a opportunity to do this.

Every decision I make in the classroom must be guided by one ideal; the ideal that my students deserve the very best education that I can possibly facilitate for them, each and every day.

This means I must be willing to allow my students to hold me accountable.  I must take a step back, absorb their input, honor it, chew on it, and use it to inform my instruction.  Too often, we teachers hide behind The “State”, “The District”, “The Standards”, or “The Test.”  We blame poor instruction on these amorphous entitities.  We do this to deflect student and parent criticism.  We are human and it is hard to absorb criticism.  It is even harder to admit that the critics are right, especially when those critics are a room full of intermittently mature adolescents.


My students were venting to me about their classes  – and school in general – yesterday.  I regularly ask my students for feedback on what we are doing in class, so that we can adjust our course.  This is an important part of our classroom community.  Opening up the feedback can, though, sometimes leads to a discussion of larger issues.  Kids don’t often receive honest invitations from adults for feedback.  When they do get them, they tend to do one of two things, either (1) they don’t believe you truly value their feedback and clam up/ give superficial feedback, or (2) they  spew a litany of pent up complaints about anything and everything even tangentially related.

So I told them this: “education should be something done WITH you, not something done TOyou.”  They stared at me with blank faces for a silent eternity (okay, it was more like 5 seconds) before lightbulbs started to flicker on around the room.  Of course, several of them thought I was lecturing them to work harder and push themselves.  A few of them got it, though.

Hopefully, my democratic ideals haven’t ingited their anarchist tendencies…


I have all of the accountability I need; thank you very much.

Doing the absolute best I can for my students and their families every single day is all of the motivation I need.

My classes are held accountable by producing work for an authentic audience.  The transparency of our classroom, via student and class blogs, and via sharing our work publicly, keeps us plenty accountable.

Accountability comes from generating rigorous projects for a real-world audience. I am accountable to my students and their families. They are accountable to their audience, not to me.

Students are not motivated by “it’s on the test” or “the state says you have to learn this.” Students are motivated by engaging, rigorous content, real choice in how they interact with that content and what they create from it, and the opportunity to collaborate with peers. (Credit to Alfie Kohn, “Punished by Rewards).

By the way, this kind of accountability motivates students much, much more that either the carrot or the stick ever could.  Students who are driven by grades, will work extremely hard when they know they have an audience.  Other students, who have no interest in striving for ‘A’s and no fear of ‘F’s,  work much harder for an audience than they ever would for a grade.  That is accountability.

I am accountable to my students and their families.  I am accountable to myself.  I need no other accountability.

photo cc licensed from the flickr stream of R Kurtz

You teach how you were taught + pressure = FAIL

I work in the Yakima Valley, in central Washington.  The combination of poverty, migrant populations, English language learners from monolingual homes and weak local economies has turned the Yakima Valley into an educational quagmire.  The state of Washington has increasingly poured in resources in an attempt to “fix” our “failing” schools.

With all of this “support” has come additional pressure on teachers.  When people are put under pressure, innovation and experimentation go out the window.  When we are under stress, by nature, we reach for what is known, for what is safe.

I’ve seen the old axiom, “you teach how you were taught,” proven true time and again.  It’s hard to create something that you’ve never experienced.  This becomes even more true for teachers under pressure.

Pressure on teachers has not inspired change in instructional practices; quite the opposite.  Pressure has caused teachers to do what they know, and do it harder.  It has caused them to lecture harder, to push more worksheets, to give more tests, to assign longer homework, etc.

Meanwhile test scores go down, attendance drops, dropout rates increase and graduation rates decrease.  Now comes less state money and more pressure.

Scores going down

Scores going down in ESD 105


All hell can’t stop us now

It has to start somewhere
It has to start sometime
What better place than here?
What better time than now?
Rage Against the Machine, Guerrilla Radio

I have a inferno raging in my belly.  It’s been growing steadily stronger.  The time has come to wrest control of our schools away from corporations and educational nihilists and make them oases of learning.

It has to start somewhere…

Our schools CAN change.  It’s not too late.  Our schools CAN become everything they should be.  The movement has to start somewhere.

“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”
Mahatma Gandhi

It has to start sometime…

Why wait?  Every day you wait is another child lost to boredom, apathy, drop-out, or failure.  Round up the like-minded educators in your school and get the ball rolling.

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
Lao Tzu

What better place than here?

I  believe that my dreams for our schools can be realized.  I have to believe that we can transform into student-centered, democratic schools where students come to learn and want to stay.  I have to believe that we can lower dropout rates, increase graduation rates and send young adults out of our doors ready to enjoy productive, satisfying lives.

“The only place where your dream becomes impossible is in your own thinking.”
Robert H. Schuller

What better time than now?

We’ve come to a crossroad.  If we as educators stand by and watch the show, we’ll be steamrolled.  On the flipside, could you imagine the power that would be wielded if a small group of committed teachers in every school decided to be the change?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead

…all hell can’t stop us now!