School culture and school climate, while not synonymous, are inextricably intertwined with one another and with the ability of a school or district to transform itself into an entity that:

  • is responsive to the needs of all students;
  • creates an environment of shared values and high academic and behavioral expecations for students and staff; and
  • fosters excellence in its students, teachers, parents, and administrators.

The twin pillars of climate and culture are what create a sense of community among all individuals, a community built around the values of respect, creativity, caring, rigor and the shared expectations that all students can and will succeed.

The articles and videos in this category will explore topics around school culture and climate.

Joseph Murphy warns us that the first law of school improvement is to recognize that “structure does not predict performance.” He urges teachers, principals and superintendents to understand that interventions alone won’t work. To close the achievement gap, we must first address what’s going on below the surface before any interventions are added on top.

Joseph Murphy, or “Murph” as his students at Vanderbilt University call him, is a school improvement expert who works to foster the environment where student learning is well-oiled. Having worked as an administrator at school, district and state levels, he serves as the Frank W. Mayborn Chair and an Associate Dean at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education in Tennessee.

In this video, Murphy addresses questions that novice to seasoned educators would have: from what an achievement gap is to how to help teachers look at students as more than their test scores. He tells us high-achieving schools can still have achievement gaps and challenges us to broaden our measure of success.

“We want a broader measure of what we count as success. I’m not talking fuzziness here. I’m talking about deeper measures of what it means to be a well-educated student.”

Although academic success is the heart, he encourages us to not talk only of academic success but to talk about academic success along with social learning. Murphy shared with us that “School has a large responsibility to help students engage in society, work with people, to be able to communicate, to be able to see a problem and frame a problem. There’s a significant amount of learning in school that we don’t measure, and that’s important.”

Murphy said educators must provide strong expectations for academic excellence and pastoral care for all, and especially for students who are on the “wrong side of the achievement gap.” To do this they must build a supportive culture first.

“Is it acceptable for the United States as a country to have educational disadvantage? To say those kids are on the wrong side of the gap and that’s just the way it is? That’s the moral imperative,” Murphy said.

Murphy shared his wisdom with Michigan educators at the 2013 Summer Institute for MI Excel Focus districts and schools. His two-strand model of culture and academic press really captured his school improvement secret best.

murph dna

For Murphy, culture is an intermediate outcome that tells us more about the school than students’ test scores do.

He explains one component of culture is to have a community of pastoral care for students and that there are four norms of pastoral care necessary for student engagement. These four norms—care, support, safety and membership—reflected by students’ efficacy and sense of belonging—directly correlate to their academic and social learning.

“You want to see evidence for care, support, safety and membership in place” Murphy said.

When these four norms are in place, Murphy told us, providing pastoral care for students who are on the “wrong side of the achievement gap” becomes easier.

Every teacher can tell us who the tourists and actively engaged learners are in their classroom. And this is a measurable data. Murphy encourages educators to be honest with themselves and together come up with a way to measure the engagement levels of students and the ways in which the school staff contribute to them. Murphy shared an anecdote of his friend, an elementary principal, who shared a simple activity to measure both levels of engagement using apple trees.

newsfeed murphy tree

The elementary principal gathered teachers to the school’s indoor gym one day. On all walls, there were drawings of apple trees with hundreds of apples on them. The number of apples matched the number of students in the school, and each apple bore a student’s name.

The principal asked teachers to go around the room and put a sticker on an apple of a student whom they knew well. He gave them 20 minutes. After the time was up, it was clear to all that about 10% of apples didn’t receive any sticker.

This activity was an engaging, measurable avenue for them to better understand their school’s culture. It led the principal and his staff to engage more with all students, even those who weren’t in their classroom.

Students’ success is more than academic press. Murphy tells us that it is really difficult to be successful unless you are building culture at the same time you are challenging students academically. Student engagement and success are evident when schools have a culture where students are “…known, cared for, supported, respected, feel they have ownership and membership, and an opportunity to participate, be recognized, and exercise leadership.”

What are some simple activities your school can do to gage the level of pastoral care in your community?

faces sharrattOntario’s education system is world-renowned for its focus on student achievement and strategic leadership. Evidence of their student success can be taken from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores. Canada ranks among the top 5 countries in the world and Ontario, being the largest province in Canada, accounts for much of those prestigious results.

Among the highest achieving districts in Ontario is the York Region District School Board which the CEO Bill Hogarth and Lyn Sharratt, then Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, led. Its improvement went from below-average scores to the top performing district in Ontario (using a standards-based measure, EQAO). “Align – Focus – Feedback” are 3 powerful words that they used to drive their district’s singular priority of literacy—that is, increased language and mathematical literacy achievement for all students, Kindergarten to grade 12.

Subsequently, Sharratt and Michael Fullan researched and wrote about this phenomenal improvement. What they discovered in their research became known as the 14 Parameters for System and School Improvement as captured in Realization: The Change Imperative for District-Wide Reform. (Corwin Press, 2009). The 14 Parameters are listed here:

  1. Shared beliefs and understandings
    • All students can learn
    • All teachers can teach
    • High expectations and early intervention are critical
    • All teachers and leaders can clearly articulate why they do what they do
  2. Embedded literacy coaches
  3. Time-tabled instructional blocks of time
  4. Principal leadership
  5. Early and ongoing intervention
  6. Case Management approach
  7. Literacy professional development at school staff meetings
  8. In-school grade/subject meetings for collaborative marking of student work
  9. Book rooms with leveled books and resources
  10. Allocation of district and school budgets for literacy learning and resources
  11. Action Research/Collaborative Inquiry focused on literacy
  12. Parent involvement
  13. Cross-curricular literacy connections in every subject area
  14. Shared responsibility and accountability for ALL learners

When all 14 areas are woven together – and implemented intentionally, they become the secret to increasing all students’ achievement and the “sandbox” for designing powerful, explicit professional learning, as discussed in their second book, “Putting FACES on the Data: What Great Leaders Do!” (Corwin Press, 2012).
What leadership dimensions does it take to do this work? In asking over 500 research participants, they discuss 3 things that Principals and district staff need:

  1. Knowledge-ability: what excellent classroom practice looks like and how to eliminate the obstacles to make it happen
  2. Mobilize-ability: how to create a “we-we” culture of learning as a lead learner
  3. Sustain-ability: how to leave great leaders in place to continue to do the work, long after they’re gone

A focus on student FACES is our work – every day, in every school, in every way. It IS possible!

Lyn Sharratt, Ph.D., is an Associate at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at University of Toronto (OISE/UT), where she coordinates the Ed.D. cohort in Theory and Policy Studies. She had worked as a teacher, curriculum consultant, teacher-trainer, public education policy analyst and superintendent of schools in the Ontario school district.

Carol Dweck, a social psychologist from Stanford University is considered to be one of the leading researchers in the field of motivation.  Her research has focused on why people succeed and how to foster success. Traditionally, people have felt success is based on innate or genetic talent, however, her research into self theories (1999 click to link “self theories”) has shown that success is generated from one of two mindsets: fixed mindset or growth mindset.  A fixed mindset, where one believes that intelligence is limited forces one to spend a lot of time trying to prove that their ability is adequate; those with a fixed mindset have a performance orientation.  They want to be seen as doing well and shy away from tasks that require effort.  


Conversely, a growth mindset is where one believes that their intelligence can be developed.  Because there is a belief in unlimited capacity, they spend their time trying to get better and are willing to endure failure and setbacks.  Those with a growth mindset have a learning orientation. They are always seeking to improve therefore, seen as “highly developed” instead of “smart.”  Strategy and feedback are key components in their development.  


  • How might understanding mindsets influence policies, and impact practices and instruction in our schools? 
  • How might understanding mindsets influence your decision making?
  • How might having a growth mindset influence your school culture?
  • What might be the implications of a fixed mindset as the dominant belief in your school culture? 

Dr. Diane Jackson, Ph.D. is the director of the Coaching 101 program in the Michigan State University College of Education Office of K-12 Outreach. She and her team, Dale Moss, Patricia Rushing, Patricia Vandelinder, and Virginia Winters, work to improve educators’ abilities to dialogue about data and engage in critical conversations around school improvement.


sparty-02  Nearly everyone would agree that ‘social justice’ is a good thing, but what social justice is – and how we achieve a socially just society – has less agreement. For many people, social justice means the equal distribution of resources and opportunities to all people within a society. This aligns with American ideals of a meritocracy and an equal opportunity society – that achievement is based on individual talent and effort – as well as the philosopher John Rawls’ version of social justice. A critical distinction in this view of social justice is an emphasis on equal opportunity and not equal outcomes. This means that everyone is provided the same educational opportunities - but isn’t guaranteed to receive a bachelor’s degree. To use the metaphor of a marathon: everyone begins at the same starting line, has similar quality of running shoes, and receives similar amounts of water from volunteers – yet is free to cross the finish line at their own pace.

One of the main avenues people think about creating a more socially just society is via education. We often think about Title I as a way to “level the playing field” for lower-income children, in that resources are devoted to students and their schools to provide more equitable educational opportunities. In this way, the intent behind Title I policies is social justice.

What Title I funds can’t do is address all of the ways money matters in education. For example, Title I funds don’t allow low-income families to invest in tax-advantaged 529 college savings programs when their children are young. These programs likely matter by making college seem more realistic and school more relevant when those children reach adolescence. This is a common advantage of middle- and upper-income families – because they have the economic resources to invest in their children – that low-income families don’t have because their income must be devoted to basic household needs. Title I funds also don’t pay for music lessons that teach children focus and discipline – and that learning can be meaningful and fun – another advantage of middle- and upper-income families that matters for achievement.  

This suggests that one explanation for why Title I hasn’t fully reduced achievement gaps across racial groups and income levels are the advantages that familial economic resources contribute outside of school. So returning to the marathon metaphor, Title I is a way to help the runners be equally prepared, but Title I can’t address the fact that the families of some runners give them distinct advantages (some runners have people giving them cups of water and cheering them on along the race route, some don’t). In later columns I will consider other social, developmental and economic “inputs” into schooling and why they matter.

sparty-02 2014 © Matthew Diemer and Michigan State University

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