10 Characteristics of Great School Cultures

Profiling great schools and conversations with effective school leaders leads to one overarching conclusion–culture is key. A powerful culture makes teachers better and kids smarter.   Yet “Culture is one of those things that all organizations say is important, but it is easily ignored or forgotten in the daily grind of running a business, non-profit, or school district,” said a recent HBR article.
Our summer homework helped us identify the following 10 key ingredients of a high performance culture:

  • Values: “We’re a values first organization,” said Kurtz of DSST Public Schools . “Each human being strives to be fully known and affirmed for who they are, and to contribute something significant to the human story.” “Character starts with the adults,” said Kurtz. That means core value commitments, modeling, 360 degree evaluations, and celebrations. Getting Smart teacher blogger Susan Lucille Davis says time, trust, and connections are what teachers want most.
  • Equity: Good schools engage all students–not just honor students–in powerful learning experiences; they develop academic mindsets scaffolded by strong supports. According to principal Stephen Mahoney, “The accomplishments of Springfield Renaissance Schools students prove that a child’s zip code does not determine his or her destiny.”
  • Innovation: Schools will need to build cultures of “failing forward, faster” undergirded by next-gen human capital development.  “We’re committed to lean startup strategies,” said Diane Tavenner, CEO of Summit Public Schools.  In support of what Tavenner calls, “Build, measure, learn cycles,”  Each course, grade level, and school team receives a weekly data packet, in Google Drive for ease of visualization, including student demographics, progress in courses, and assessment results. Course teams from all six Summit schools meet weekly via video conference.
  • Good habits. Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School starts the day with Crew, a 30 minute advisory period where they practice and talk about the shared Habits of Heart and Mind central to the Launch culture: accountability, craftsmanship, wonder, mindfulness, and compassion. The Habits are integrated into the culture and every learning experience at Launch.
  • Care: Moorseville North Carolina receives attention for their successful “digital convergence” but culture is the secret sauce. “Schools with a sense of spirit thrive,” and conversely superintendent Mark Edwards said, “Tech plans will collapse without a strong cultural foundations.” Edwards, whose enthusiasm is infectious, says, “The works starts with love and care for students.” They use Capturing Kid’s Heart, a professional development (PD) program from the Flippen Group that has infected the language of the district.[v]
  • Big questions: “We want people to be perplexed—to embrace the paradox of starting new schools,” said High Tech High founder Larry Rosenstock. Great schools, like DSST Public Schools, incorporate this “perplexity” into the curriculum which, according to teacher Jim Stephens, “requires empathy, ideation, and prototyping before they can arrive at a solution—they learn that they can solve any problem, in or out of school, with this approach.”
  • Support: New employees in Mooresville are paired with a mentor. Tech facilitators at each school focus on needs of new employees. One teacher said, “The best part of the PD was having a Tech Facilitator at my beck and call.”
  • Collaboration: Rocketship Education teachers receive an average of 250-300 hours of professional development each year. New teachers lean all the tools that students use, CEO Preston Smith said, “Time is also spent on data analysis, real-time coaching, co-teaching with school leaders, collaborating with our Individualized Learning Specialists and special education teachers, and integrating our online programs into instruction.”
  • Mastery: “Culture is incredibly important. Success [Academy] teachers are positive, enthusiastic, and believe in kids,” Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy explains. “We have a culture of daily mastery- we believe children should intellectually struggle with challenging content and the teachers should insist on mastery.”
  • Execution: “If we’re really going to meet the needs of children every hour, every minute, it takes executional competence to deliver at that high level–it’s much more profound than most people realize–it requires enormous execution talents,” said Moskowitz.

Every school has a culture. In big chaotic schools, kids drive many of the behavioral norms. In contrast, deeper learning environments are intentionally hand crafted around an intellectual mission; they are made fresh and visible in word and deed every week.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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