Creating a Context for Change

Improving schools involves change. Change, however, is not an isolated process. It occurs within some context. In the case of school improvement, that context is the school. A school is a complex organism, not just a building with people inside. In order to change the organism, it is necessary to consider the effects of a change on all the parts of the organism. Each part is dependent upon the others and all parts react to changes in any other part. Examining these parts and considering their influence on the change process is important for leaders of school improvement efforts.

Educational research describes several elements of school context that can facilitate the work of leaders of school improvement efforts. What contextual factors influence change? Do these factors also influence success for at-risk students? How might leaders address these factors to support implementation of school improvement for at-risk students?

The impact of the school context on at-risk students is an especially important consideration for those engaged in improving schools. Richardson, Casanova, Placier, and Guilfoyle's study (1989) of at-risk students proposes that at-risk status is derived from an interaction between the characteristics of the child and the nature of the classroom and school. Family background, personal characteristics of the child, the school context, and the social behavior of children interact to create conditions that place children at risk of failing to achieve their academic potential, of dropping out of school, and of having limits placed on their ability to function as productive adults in society.

What is school context? Context is viewed in this article as a broad and inclusive term consisting of two dimensions. The first includes aspects of the school that are not living, but nevertheless affect its inhabitants. The resources available, policies and rules, and size of the school are examples of this dimension of school context, labeled ecology in this paper. The second element is the school's culture. Culture is a term that captures the informal side of schools. It includes attitudes and beliefs, school norms, and relationships, both within the school and between school and community.

As suggested by the Latin contextere, "to weave together," the interrelatedness and interaction of the school ecology and culture create the context in which school improvement efforts are undertaken. In this paper, the elements of school context are discussed separately. However, it should be emphasized that it is precisely because of the interrelationships and interrelatedness of elements of the school that context is a factor in change (Sarason, 1990).


The school's organization and size, policies, and resources can influence school improvement and at-risk students, because they affect attitudes and relationships among those who inhabit the school.

The physical surroundings

The physical arrangement and size of schools play an important role in the feelings of teachers and students (Fullan, 1991). Some structures in the school may minimize opportunities for teachers to interact, such as patterns of scheduling, cellular physical layout, and large school size. This, in turn, may promote among educators a decreased sense of self efficacy, an avoidance of controversy, and the often untested assumption that others do not share the same views as the individual (Fowler & Walberg, 1991; Sarason, 1982). Limited contact with new ideas and a decreased capacity for innovation may result from structures that encourage isolation (Fullan, 1991). On the other hand, a sense of community may be developed when schedules and structures are modified to encourage interaction among teachers.

Formal policies and rules

In addition to the physical plan of the school, policies at federal, state, and district levels can present barriers or bridges to school improvement efforts and the success of at-risk students. In fact, it has been argued that departure from district or state policies and regulations is often required to achieve substantial positive change in instruction (Levine, 1991). Examples of policies likely to assist school improvement effort include those that provide greater autonomy at the building level, foster collaboration among schools and teachers, and provide effective channels for communication and staff development (Carnegie Foundation, 1988; Chubb & Moe, 1990).


The availability of local school resources has great influence on school improvement implementation. Locating and allocating both time and money for the change project are major responsibilities of leaders (Louis & Miles, 1990). Finding time to engage in implementation activities is often cited as a barrier to implementation. Researchers have found that, indeed, many change efforts fail simply because not enough time was invested in them (Sarason, 1982; Simpson, 1990). In addition, the lack of funding can limit the type of improvement considered, limit the materials available, and result in the inability to address problems until the next fiscal year (Louis & Miles, 1990; Pink, 1990).

The School Culture

The culture of the school can assist improvement efforts for at-risk students, or act as a barrier to positive change (Deal & Kennedy, 1982; Sarason, 1982). A summary of the general knowledge base regarding school culture by Patterson, Purkey, and Parker (1986) provides insight for leaders in examining their school culture. They found:

  • School culture affects the behavior and achievement of students.
  • School culture is created and can be shaped by people in the school.
  • No two school cultures are exactly alike.
  • The culture bonds the individuals in a school together when it provides focus and a clear purpose for the school.
  • Culture can be an obstacle to educational success; it can be oppressive and discriminatory for various subgroups.
  • Lasting change in fundamental areas such as teaching practice or decision-making structures requires understanding and altering the school culture. This is a slow process.


The attitudes of teachers regarding schooling, students, and change have an impact on the behavior of teachers toward students, especially those at risk. These same attitudes influence teachers' behavior in implementing or resisting school improvement as well. The influence of teacher attitudes is particularly important due to the interplay between the characteristics of the student and the context of the school that defines a student as at risk.

Identifying and confronting beliefs among school staffs that prohibit students from achieving their potential is a vital component of school improvement efforts. Commonly accepted myths become barriers when they limit students' access to quality education. Some of these myths, identified in a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1990), include:

  • Learning is due to innate abilities, and minorities are simply less capable of educational excellence than whites.
  • The situation is hopeless.
  • Education is an expense and not an investment.
  • Equity and excellence in education are in conflict.
  • Minorities don't care about education.
  • Educational success or failure is within the complete control of each individual.

Negative attitudes toward change can also hamper efforts to improve schools. A "system paranoia" that is reflected in statements such as "they won't let me do it," or "I knew things hadn't changed," or "there they go again" creates barriers to change (Goldman & O'Shea, 1990). Teacher concerns about how change will affect them personally and the practicality of change are areas to be addressed by leaders. Examining change efforts of the past is important because, if these past experiences were unsuccessful, teachers may be cynical or apathetic toward the new school improvement effort (Corbett, Dawson, & Firestone, 1984; Fullan, 1991). Taking time to ensure that the reasons for the change, the practicality of this program for the specific problem being addressed, and the philosophical basis for the effort are well understood by everyone involved will enhance the likelihood of lasting implementation (Boyd, 1992).

Students' attitudes toward change, though examined little, are significant for the success of school improvement. Fullan (1991), who notes that few researchers have actually asked students what they think, proposes four images of student attitudes toward change: indifference, confusion, a temporary escape from boredom, or heightened interest and engagement with learning. If the school improvement effort creates conditions where students become actively engaged, it is more likely that increased student success will occur as a result of the effort (Fullan, 1991).

In addition, the community's attitudes toward the school and the school improvement efforts affect implementation. External groups exert pressure on schools requiring schools to satisfy what their constituents believe is proper for schools (Cuban, 1990). If the community provides ongoing encouragement, support and resources, change efforts will more likely enjoy success (Goodlad, 1984). Developing this support by the community is an important task of school leaders.

Cultural norms

Just as the attitudes and beliefs of persons both inside and outside the school building may facilitate or impede change, the norms, or informal rules that govern behavior, exert influence on change efforts. Researchers have found particular cultural norms that facilitate school improvement: a norm of continuous critical inquiry, a norm of continuous improvement, a widely shared sense of purpose, and a norm of involvement in making decisions (Barth, 1991; Louis & Miles, 1990; Saphier and King, 1985).

A norm of continuous critical inquiry may indicate that school personnel are aware of the school's strengths and weaknesses and are open to dealing with its imperfections. Programs that are successful for at-risk students do not suppress criticism or emphasize conformity (Fine, 1991). Introspection and reflection about the beliefs, actions, and underlying assumptions that regulate teaching and administration are important to successful change efforts (Dreyfuss, Cistone, and Divita, 1992).

A close companion of critical inquiry is the idea that continuous improvement is expected. Experimentation and staff development lead to improved practice and an increased capacity for change through the development of knowledge, skills, and understanding. The expectation that staff development will occur is a norm that promotes change efforts. As Miles and Louis (1990) point out, "knowing that X is a workable action you want to take does not mean knowing how to deliver X. The paths to educational improvement are strewn with examples of behavior that no one knew how to deliver" (p.58).

The need for a widely shared sense of purpose or vision has been described in other Issues...about Change, as has the idea that broad-based involvement in decision-making, especially decisions regarding teaching and curricular issues, is important to change efforts. It bears repeating, however, that improved student outcomes that are clearly articulated, relevant, and visualized in action images must be the focus of whatever change schools undertake (Miles & Louis, 1990).

When the existing norms of the school encourage continuous introspection, continuous improvement, and involvement in decision making, change is encouraged. The development of such norms is an important aspect of leadership for change.


Just as individuals' attitudes and beliefs affect change and the norms of the school, relationships among individuals and groups are part of the school culture that can either facilitate or impede change. In turn, these relationships are affected by cultural norms.

Teacher peer relationships.
A norm of collegial relationships is often cited as a component of successful change implementation. A collaborative work culture can reduce professional isolation and contribute to higher morale, enthusiasm, and willingness to accept new ideas (Barth, 1991). Leaders of school improvement efforts need to encourage and support collegial relationships between principal and teachers and among teachers. Collegial relationships facilitate change because peer group consensus and interaction are important to social learning (Goodlad, 1984), and change has been characterized as a learning process.

Student-teacher relationships.
In the traditional, isolated professional culture, the teacher develops mental models of schools and students based on the ways students respond to what the teacher is doing. Indeed, as Rosenholtz (1987) found, teachers rely primarily on students to provide meaning for their work. This reliance may encourage gradual narrowing of the teacher's sense of purpose, decreased teacher expectations for students, and increased weight given to practices that enable the teacher to manage classroom behavior successfully. Rarely, in an isolated professional culture, will teachers' assumptions, norms, values and beliefs be challenged by significantly more ambitious visions of what is possible (Leithwood & Jantzi, 1990).

Change efforts will have limited success unless students are actively engaged. The attitudes of students, the influence of cultural norms on their behavior, and the relationships they have with teachers, other students and the school itself affects school improvement efforts (Boyd, 1992).

High school students often develop a "live and let live" relationship with teachers that presents a barrier to change by protecting the status quo (Fullan, 1991). Research has shown that a cycle occurs where teachers' expectations affect students' commitment, which then affects teachers' expectations. (Firestone & Rosenblum, 1988).

At-risk students have the same needs as all adolescents for group membership, positive relationships with adults, acquisition of knowledge and skills, and a sense of competence (Wehlage, Rutter, Smith, Lesko, & Fernandez, 1989). Peer leaders and student heroes affect the scholastic tone of the school and enhance student achievement (Deal, 1985). A school context that forms a sense of community is necessary to promote student growth (Smey-Richman, 1991).

Relationships with parents and community. Transforming schools entails a fundamental change in traditional beliefs held by parents, local politicians, residents, administrators, staff, and students (Deal, 1990). Goals, standards, and practices of the school must be consistent with, and developed in partnership with, parents and community members. Community agreement on desired schooling outcomes is essential for effective schooling to take place, as is community participation in reviewing progress toward these desired outcomes (Weber, 1986 cited in Conklin & Olson, 1988). Community support of the school itself and for the change effort is vital. Parents and community members must be active partners and allies, not adversaries.

Leadership and Context

Purkey and Smith (1983), in their review of the effective schools literature, discuss the idea that schools are "loosely coupled" systems in that what goes on in individual classrooms is largely independent of mandates and supervision. As noted earlier in this article, most classrooms are isolated, and the physical structure of schools contributes to this isolation. Sergiovanni (1987) proposes that what is needed in schools is a combination of a tightly coupled culture and loosely coupled structure. A combination of tightly coupled culture, "around clear and explicit themes representing the core of the school's culture," and of loosely coupled structure, "so that people can pursue these themes in ways that make sense to them, may well be a key reason why [successful] schools are so successful" (Sergiovanni, 1987, p. 62).

Creating a context that contains a tightly coupled culture may require leaders to view schools from a different perspective.

[The cultural perspective] assumes that consensus is more powerful than overt control, without ignoring the need for leadership. Building staff agreement on specified norms and goals becomes the focus of any school improvement strategy. It is important to note, however, that staffs could agree on educationally unsound ideas of practices; consensus could also act as a buffer and prevent critical examination of the school or a proposed change. While staff agreement is important, we do not mean that it should be uncritical (Purkey & Smith, 1983, p. 442).

A focus on improved educational experiences and success for all students should guide the efforts.

The stories and suggestions that follow are drawn from the experiences of particular schools in implementing change and implementation research. The reader is reminded, however, that due to the interrelational and interdependent nature of the elements of school context, specific activities that worked in one school may not work as well in another. As Leithwood (1992) observes, "we are learning that schools are complex systems made up of parts with greater interdependencies than we earlier believed" (p. 9). This interdependence is the challenge provided by context to those leading school improvement efforts.

Shaping the ecology

The principal needs to identify structural components of the school that influence change efforts. As the person typically responsible for scheduling and physical arrangements in the school, the principal can use these tools to reduce isolation and alienation of students and teachers. For example, principals might schedule common planning periods for teachers to share information and interact. Through allocation of resources, principals can give preference to teachers actively engaged in collaborative practices or to field trips that involve two or more teachers working together on a project (Smith & Scott, 1990). This sets the stage for the development of collegial relationships.

Smith and Scott (1990) suggest several ways in which principals can use faculty meetings as a vehicle for encouraging collaboration: Allow faculty to suggest agenda items; engage faculty in chairing the meetings on a rotating basis; hold the meeting in various locations to allow each teacher the opportunity to serve as host; set aside time at faculty meeting for teachers to describe inservice programs they have attended and to highlight teacher achievements.

Simpson (1990) tells the story of the principal of a school that had been engaged in school-wide improvement for nine years. The principal began by inviting anyone interested to join her for lunch one day a week to discuss improvement efforts. Outside consultants sometimes presented ideas to the group and even arranged a visit to another school. Nine years later, these lunches had become a "protected ritual" and an important time together for planning. These lunch meetings led to such changes as thematic curriculum, cross-age teaching, and exhibits of student work. The principal cited rituals such as the lunch meeting as vehicles for change in the school.

Nurturing and supporting a positive, widely internalized school culture

Deal and Peterson (1990) point out that principals who are trying to understand the culture of their school need to ask three questions:

  • What is the culture of the school now - its history, values, traditions, assumptions, beliefs, and ways?
  • Where it matches my conception of a "good" school, what can I do to strengthen existing patterns?
  • Where I see a need for new direction, what can be done to change or reshape the culture? (p. 16)

In order to answer the first question, the principal must observe what is happening in the school. One possible framework for analyzing the culture is suggested by the work of Deal (1985). By examining the shared values and beliefs, heroes and heroines, rituals and ceremonies, stories told, and the informal network of cultural players, principals can begin to understand the culture of the school.

  • Shared values and beliefs may be uncovered by looking at written documents such as the school's mission statement or any publications written by the school that contain slogans or symbols.
  • The heroes or heroines are those individuals such as former and current teachers, principals or other staff whose heroic deeds or qualities serve as current or past role models.
  • Rituals and ceremonies (such as where and when meetings are held; how new employees are oriented; how accomplishments are recognized; who socializes with whom, when, and where) provide insight about what is considered valuable.
  • Stories that are told in the school about heroic deeds or the success of certain teaching practices carry messages regarding cultural values.
  • The informal network that controls communication patterns and channels may be analyzed by considering who talks and writes to whom, when, why, and the response they get; who in the school serves as a gossip, spy, or soothsayer.

Once the principal has investigated these aspects of the school's culture, an examination of ways to strengthen or reshape existing cultural patterns may be undertaken. According to Schein (1985), the primary mechanisms principals use to strengthen existing cultural elements that fit with the shared purpose of the school and reshape cultural elements that conflict with the vision are:

  • what they pay attention to,
  • their reactions to critical incidents and crises,
  • their role modeling, teaching, and coaching, and
  • criteria they use to recruit, reward, and censure employees. (p. 225)

Paying attention.
Researchers (e.g. Deal & Peterson, 1990; Leithwood & Jantzi, 1991) who have studied principals who shape the school culture have found some common behaviors and tactics used by these principals. Those who shape culture have a clear and focused sense of mission and values and develop a vision of what the school should be. They strengthen a widely internalized culture through such activities as clarifying and prioritizing a set of shared goals. For example, by asking questions regarding how implementation is proceeding and what problems are occurring, principals demonstrate the importance of the school improvement effort. The principal is also communicating an "expectation to be informed about classroom practices" (Staessens, 1991, p. 4). Paying attention to how the shared goals are being played out in classrooms is demonstrated in this way.

The principal is extremely important to the school's norms and relationships. The principals studied by researchers such as Deal and Peterson (1990), Leithwood and Jantzi (1991), and others actively model their values in a highly visible manner through consistent daily routines and concrete actions. Principals demonstrate what is important in the school through activities such as allocating resources, planning and scheduling time for collaboration, and involving others in decision-making. By modeling a high degree of interaction with the staff, the principal encourages a high degree of cooperation among the staff (Smith & Scott, 1990). Norms such as "one should work hard" are created by principals who model this norm. "He is the first to be at school, and the last to leave; The school is his hobby" are teachers' remarks about one principal who provided such modeling (Staessens, 1991, p.11).

Teaching and coaching.
Staessens (1991) found that principals who nurture and support a culture conducive to change were well read and well informed. By making sure that answers and help are provided for problems encountered by teachers, principals encourage a norm that "the school is a place where teachers can learn something, and that one can become a better teacher by bringing up something in a professional manner" (Staessens, 1991, p. 11). Principals foster teacher learning by such activities as providing resources for staff development, attending in-service training with the teachers, and sharing information from conferences with teachers. Stories that illustrate what principals value in the school are spread to become "legends" that will strengthen the culture even further. Frequent and direct communication about norms, values, and beliefs further strengthens a positive school culture.

Reacting to critical events.
Stories about reactions to critical events are a tool used to strengthen the culture. For example, one principal tells the story of "cart teachers" known for their "can do" attitude. Due to a shortage of space, these teachers kept materials on a cart and moved from room to room, exemplifying the school's focus on solving problems creatively (Blendinger & Jones, 1989, p. 24). When conflict occurs, principals who nurture and support a positive culture are willing to face conflict rather than avoid it. They use structures such as faculty meetings and common planning periods to reduce teacher isolation.These principals use conflict as a vehicle to resolve disputes and build unity.

Selecting, rewarding, and censuring staff.
Finally, each of the principals in the studies cited above used to some degree traditions, ceremonies, rituals, and symbols that expressed and reinforced the school culture he or she was striving to construct. These leaders used symbols and rituals (such as staff meetings and assemblies where the work of staff and students was recognized, private notes that expressed appreciation for special efforts, and encouragement to share experiences with colleagues) to express cultural values. Teacher commitment to shared goals is stimulated by principals, sometimes through such forceful means as giving teachers the option to transfer elsewhere with the principal's assistance if they do not want to stay and devote themselves to the goals of the school. Teacher evaluation has also been found to contribute significantly to teachers' commitment to school goals (Leithwood & Jantzi, 1991).

Although this paper highlights the role of the principal as leader in the school, Patterson, Purkey, and Parker (1986) point out that the "principal is not, in fact, the only person who can provide leadership, especially leadership for school improvement" (p. 103). They go on to note that school context is likely to "strongly affect what a principal should (and can) do in any given situation" (p.104). Because of the influence of school context on school improvement efforts, leaders must understand that schools are complex organisms. The fact that the leader is also part of this organism increases the need to understand and learn how to work with the elements of school context if school improvement is to succeed.

Successful implementation of school improvement for at-risk students occurs where leaders have "vision, the ability to generate solutions, and the foresight to provide security to teachers as they try to accommodate to new problems" (Davis, 1989, p.6). Once improvement efforts are underway, principals must be aware of the changing demands on their leadership. According to one principal, "It's all the things that can go wrong after a program is adopted that burn people out. People like me must see to it that teachers who want to make improvements are supported" (Avery, 1986, p. 4).

It is important that leaders of school improvement efforts pay attention to the school context. Understanding that elements of context affect change is the first step toward dealing with the influence of these elements. Such actions as the modification of schedules and allocation of resources by leaders can support school improvement. Structures and rituals can be initiated that will provide vehicles for change. By examining cultural indicators and working to strengthen those elements of the culture that fit the school improvement effort, leaders can create a context that supports change.


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Credits and Disclaimer

Issues . . . about Change is published and produced quarterly Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL). This publication is based on work sponsored by the Office of Educational Research & Improvement, U.S. Department of Education under grant number RP91002003. The content herein does not necessarily reflect the views of the department or any other agency of the U.S. government or any other source. Available in alternative formats.

The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) is located at 4700 Mueller Blvd., Austin, Texas 78723; 512-476-6861/800-476-6861. SEDL is an Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer and is committed to affording equal employment opportunities to all individuals in all employment matters.

This issue was written by Vicki Boyd-Dimock, Research Associate, Services for School Improvement, SEDL.

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 2, Number 2, Creating a Context for Change (1992)
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