What does a school culture of success look like? How is it defined?  How do we measure it?  What role do tests play and can we have a culture of success with mandated standards and an externally driven curriculum?  Can the conditions for student success exist absent a highly regulated school environment? These questions, as well as so many others, are being debated throughout society with the goal of creating a successful teaching and learning environment for all students. Government at all levels with the support and involvement of educational institutions and foundations are developing various policies to close the achievement gap in our schools and reduce student dropouts.  While most of these efforts are based on good intentions, they tend to be grounded in deficits.  In other words, the thinking is that we can create success from fixing what’s broken.

The IFT Disagrees

It doesn’t make much sense to create a school culture of success from a climate of disappointment and intractable problems. The IFT believes school change should focus on what’s working; the great teaching taking place in our classrooms. Further, if we want to know why children are successful, talk to successful students and their parents.  The IFT believes that the best strategy for school improvement is to investigate what’s working, not what’s broken. By focusing on what works in our schools, encouraging teacher independence and increasing capacity, we are more likely to have success.

Through conversations, focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and surveys, the IFT discovered that teachers with the support of school-community stakeholders must be directly involved in the school change process. The IFT has also found that school change is likely to be more successful when: (1) change initiatives are stated in positive terms; (2) change initiatives are driven by internal rules and regulations, and (3) change initiatives are tailored to specific teaching and learning conditions.

Strength-Based Approaches

Through strength-based approaches, teachers and other school-community stakeholders have been found to be more energized and interested in participating in the change process. Strength-based school improvement represents a major shift from traditional school reform approaches where the responsibility for change lies in the hands of a few individuals. Fundamental to the strength-based approach is the assertion that meaningful and sustainable school improvement is more likely when teachers and other school-community stakeholders are excited about the changes they want to make, have a clear plan for action, and the confidence that they can be successful. Strength-based organizational development strategies have been used by many corporations, hospitals, and government agencies to improve performance and to solve intractable problems.

The strength-based design uses both qualitative and quantitative methods to collect data on school, community, and student assets. Through strength-based interviews, affirmative assessments, surveys, audits, and focus groups, school-community stakeholders generate information on structures, procedures, and practices that support student success. What makes this data appropriate and useful for school improvement is that it can be easily tested for social validity and reliability.

This conclusion is based on data the IFT obtained from students and their parents. By conducting strength-based interviews, the IFT has heard wonderful stories from successful students and their parents. It is important to note that participating students and their parents did not have any more special resources and advantages than other students who were having less success in school. In other words, the IFT investigated why certain students were successful (without any special privileges) while other students with the same opportunities were not as successful in school.

From our initial interviews and numerous follow-up meetings, discussions, and focus groups, the IFT identified seven factors that encourage a culture of school success.  These factors include:

  • Future Oriented – Students have a dramatic, positive image of the future.
  • Results Oriented – Students understand strength-based thinking increases capacity and resilience to achieve goals.
  • School Family Relations – Parents as strong partners in the teaching and learning process are encouraged to be involved in their children’s education.
  • School-Wide Relations – All school stakeholders are responsible for the education of each student.
  • Student-Centered – Emphasis is placed on learning over teaching.
  • Student Relations – Students view other students as supportive and interested in their well-being.
  • Work-Oriented – Work is valued, purposeful, and relevant to students.

Next Steps

The CTA IFT supports the view that student assets–not problems–should drive the teaching and learning process and that the acquisition of knowledge and skills around student strengths forms the basis of a rigorous and relevant curriculum. Through strength-based school improvement models, individuals share stories that reveal their deepest thoughts and insights that support a culture of success. School-community stakeholders, thinking together, describe themes, patterns, relationships, and connections in detail. The result is a comprehensive body of knowledge designed to improve student engagement, achievement, and ultimately success.

The bottom-line for teachers and the public schools is that instead of searching for various programmatic and structural changes to improve our schools, the solution or remedy might lie in our schools and classrooms, unnoticed and unobserved. For over a generation, billions of government and foundation dollars have supported thousands of school reform movements in the curriculum, instruction, professional development, and school organizational structure (i.e. smaller learning communities). Most of these reform efforts have focused on a common problem-solving approach: needs analysis of what is wrong or lacking in schools, followed by research into best practice to address these problems, and then design and implementation of plans to find solutions to problems. This process has achieved moderate or temporary results in some schools, but according to numerous public and private studies and reports, the overall results and improvements in our public schools have been less than dramatic.  The bottom-line is that in spite of these efforts and regardless of how noble their intention results have been less than satisfactory.  By focusing on what works in our schools, encouraging teacher independence and increasing capacity, we are more likely to have success.

About the author: CTA IFT
The CTA Institute for Teaching promotes Strength-Based Teacher Driven Change. Through grants, member engagement, special programs, research, conferences, networking, and community-based coalitions, the CTA Institute for Teaching seeks to advance public education and promote the common good of our students and communities.