How Long Does It Take to Change a School Culture?
Last May when everyone was hired back at Central Falls in Rhode Island, I asked in a blog post whether the school would look different in three years. Well, it looks different already, and not in a good way.
I said three years because in my experience, it takes at least that long (and probably longer) to improve a school’s culture, and that’s only with good leadership, strong support from the board of education, family involvement, and a willingness on the part of the staff to be part of something better.
Now we hear that things are worse than ever. Absenteeism among teachers has spiked, and many of them cite stress as the reason. Some have resigned. Teacher issues, as always, have filtered down to the kids, who are now acting out the way kids do when parents divorce and the usual structures begin to disintegrate.
In a timely and provocatively titled report “Are Bad Schools Immortal?” researcher David Stuit of Fordham tracked over 2000 low performing schools from 2003-4 to 2008-9. What he found was that roughly 80% of those schools were still low performing five years later, leading researchers to posit that it might be better to just close those schools from the get go.
The philosophy so far in Central Falls seems to be, “The beatings will stop when morale improves.” Teachers, of course, have responsibility for the education of their students, but they have a valid and important point when they say that the focus has been on them to the exclusion of everyone else who bears similar responsibility for the failing school.
It would take exceptional efforts and exceptional people working together to change the culture at Central Falls. If culture change was challenging last year, it seems nearly impossible this year as the situation has worsened. Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has suggested (or perhaps threatened) closing the school. Looking at the current situation in light of Stuit’s research, it’s clear that things can’t continue as they are and we’re not even half way through the academic year. Is there a lesson here in this painful experience? I certainly hope so.