Should schools focus on changing school culture or changing school policies?

Zeniya Buggs and Malachi Ferguson

As we continue to look at the future of education beyond the pandemic, school districts across the world are still reacting to an ever-changing shift. In a time like this, should schools redefine the school culture or redefine their policies?

School culture refers to the personality of the school. The culture of the school can be identified by the school’s underlying norms, behavioral patterns, attitudes, expectations, and values that exist. In short, school culture is how we feel in our school. On the other hand, school policies refers to regulations that administration puts into place in order to influence and guide students to make better decisions.

So which has more influence on students? Culture or policy? Culture is ultimately more effective because having an environment where everyone is doing the right thing because of a shared belief will have a better outcome than following rules in fear of being punished. Gruenert and Whitaker (2017) propose a powerful link between culture and school improvement: “Using school culture to improve schools may be a unique approach. School leaders are warned about how controlling school culture can be. Few consider it an ally.” The truth is that culture and policies need to be aligned, when they are not, culture will win and any long-term changes, even if well intended, will be prevented because of the school’s culture. According to Teach First, an organization that aims to address educational disadvantage, “If culture is in line with the vision, mission, and improvement priorities of a school, the change efforts can be long-lasting and truly embedded into the school’s practices”. Culture allows everyone to be in alignment with one another- sharing the same goals and fundamental values, striving to achieve the same thing.

Constantly changing rules within a system will lead nowhere if the school’s culture is not being considered. In order to make a difference, both need to be included in a system. Douglas B. Reeves, an author of more than 100 articles and 40 books on educational leadership and student achievement says, “In the last decade, the education standards movement has taught us that policy change without cultural change is an exercise in futility and frustration.” Sophia Ogden (11), A member of South Gwinnett’s Gwinnett Student Leadership Team (GSLT) further explains that the two go hand in hand. She states, “Culture is important to have when trying to bring unity to the school, but in order to have a successful culture and learning environment, certain rules need to be in place.” This year, Comets have seen firsthand how critical a new roll out of policies can be when culture is not prioritized. Mr. John Leece, a language arts teacher at South, spoke at the GCPS board meeting on October 20th of this year. In his address to the school board, Mr. Leece outlines the concern on school safety as a result of discipline policy change stating “the things that happen in our classrooms would not be allowed to happen in this meeting. If they did, we would be taken out of here by police…this policy is hurting us.” Even though the policies were well-intended, this just further shows how powerful school culture is. The work that should be addressed in school right now is focusing on what students value and offering them positive perspectives on how they view themselves, their peers, adults, and the education system as a whole.

Overall, while debating on school culture vs. school policy, most would agree that the two go hand in hand. Schools should first take on the difficult task of changing the culture of the school. Truly meaningful and long-lasting school improvement starts with a positive school culture that supports academic success, safety, and mental wellness of teachers and students.