Shaping School Culture: A Core Leading for Results Responsibility

Creating high-performing school cultures is not a solitary activity. (Photo: Dennis Sparks)

“Culture trumps innovation,” I wrote in an earlier essay in which I offered my assumptions about school leadership. “That means that continuous improvements in teaching and learning require that we address cultural elements such as trust, experimentation, risk taking, and teamwork, among other attributes.”

While school culture is a powerful force that either enables or inhibits continuous improvement, it may be largely invisible to community members, like water is to fish, as an old saying goes. And, even when a culture’s negative influence is recognized, members of the school community, including its leaders, often believe that little or nothing that can be done to change it.

But because school culture ultimately determines whether new ideas or practices will be used for the benefit of all students, culture cannot be ignored by school leaders. Nor can new cultures be created by leaders acting alone. Indeed, a primary characteristic of high-performing cultures is that leadership is distributed throughout the school community. That means that new, more effective cultures are co-created by leaders and community members, especially teachers.

Cultural shifts

School cultures move in the direction of higher performance as they shift from:

• confusion and incoherence regarding important goals, ideas, and practices to clarity and coherence;

• leadership centered on a single individual to leadership developed and distributed throughout the school community;

• resignation and powerlessness to hopefulness and collective sense of efficacy;

• low levels of trust to high levels of trust;

• a focus on deficits, negativity, and complaint to that of strengths, positivity, and appreciation;

• professional isolation and dependence on outside authority to results-oriented experimentation founded in teamwork and community;

• accountability to external authorities to accountability to one another for achieving important goals; and

• episodic, superficial professional development to team-based learning embedded in the planning, assessment, and continuous improvement of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

To strengthen your leadership practice

Engage in one or more of the following activities:

• Clarify your assumption about the relationship between school culture and a school’s ability to successfully apply new ideas and practices.

• On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being a strong culture of continuous improvement for the benefit of all students, rate your school on one or more of the cultural attributes listed above. (Avoid “compulsive fence sitting” by not giving a rating of 5.) Ask others in the community to rate the culture and to discuss their views with you.

• Identify (1) the strengths of your current culture and (2) ways in which it might it be improved?

4 Responses to “Shaping School Culture: A Core Leading for Results Responsibility”


  1. 1 Kent Peterson February 16, 2010 at 9:55 am

    An excellent list of what leaders should do to strengthen their practice. School culture is crucial to professional development, problem solving, even student learning.

    A leader might use this as a list to consider every day.

    (Recently Terrence Deal and I finished a second edition of “Shaping School Culture” that provides cases showing how Sparks’ ideas play out in schools.)

    Keep up this blog!


  1. 1 LFR’s Quotation of the Week: Leaders Change Culture by First Changing Themselves « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on January 28, 2010 at 5:59 am
  2. 2 “Shape the path” to influence change « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on May 14, 2010 at 4:01 am
  3. 3 Pay attention to school culture when introducing new technologies « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on May 17, 2010 at 4:02 am

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