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Back to Front Vol 1, No. 2, April 2000


Creating a Context Conducive to Change

Context Includes Culture, Resources, Relationships, and Rules

Creating a context that supports change may be the most important of the strategies to ensure successful implementation of a school reform program. A school’s context encompasses all of its facets:

  • culture;
  • relationships of people within and outside of the school;
  • resources;
  • local, state, and federal policies and rules;
  • demographics; and
  • physical facilities.1

Having a context conducive to change and reform helps move a comprehensive school reform program forward. In fact, Dennis Sparks, executive director of the National Staff Development Council, says, "Usually when people begin change efforts, they discover that there are some invisible barriers. And those invisible barriers almost always reside in the context. They reside in the norms and structures of the school that make it more difficult for people to move ahead."2

Because of its complexity, creating this context for school change and improvement may be the most difficult step in the implementation process. It involves more than just deciding to implement a comprehensive school reform model or changing the curriculum. Because barriers to reform include teacher isolation and the perception on the part of many teachers that an individual cannot make a difference, it may mean changing organizational and physical structures. And much more difficult, over the long-term it may mean changing the school’s culture to provide a supportive atmosphere where trust is pervasive and leadership is shared–a collegial culture where teachers are free to discuss problems and practice, and where continuous learning among the staff is valued.

A Collaborative School Culture Is Needed

Participation in a culture–a collaborative culture–like the one just described, supports the risk taking needed to make changes for school improvement and the struggle inherent in school change and reform.3

Michael Fullan, dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education who often writes about leadership and change issues, notes that "the process of helping to develop collaborative work cultures is complex. It requires great sophistication on the part of school leaders: to express their own values without being imposing; to draw out other people’s values and concerns; to manage conflict and problem solving; to give direction and to be open at the same time."4

For Discussion or Reflection: Think  about how your school has created a context for school change. What else could you do to make the atmosphere more conducive to change?An effective collaborative culture is the professional learning community (often called a PLC), which has been defined as "a community where teachers engage in reflective dialogue, where there is deprivatization of practice, collective focus on student learning, collaboration, and shared norms and values."5 PLCs can greatly affect teacher practice–research has shown that learning communities can help teachers make sense of student responses and help them reconcile their ideas regarding what constitutes good practice. Staffs who become PLCs continuously seek and share learning and act on their learning. Student learning becomes their focal point. Says SEDL program manager Shirley Hord, "The learning community focuses directly and incessantly on kids and kids’ needs."

It is this focus on the students that can make a huge difference in student learning and help ensure a successful school reform program. As will be discussed below this was a major difference between Sierra Vista and Sunrise Elementaries.

Noted researchers Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert conducted a five-year study of 16 high schools. They found that differences between successful and unsuccessful schools were attributable to the presence of a professional community among teachers. They also suggest that teachers who work in isolation were least likely to meet the diverse learning needs of high school students.6

Hord concurs. "Learning in a social context can be more forceful than learning by yourself. By engaging in collaborative inquiry and reflecting on their practice, teachers can learn to change their practice so that their interaction with all students is more effective."

While the PLC may be the ideal collaborative culture according to Hord, it often takes several years to establish the community. However, by beginning to work toward the establishment of a PLC, a collaborative culture may emerge even though the school may not be a true PLC.

How Did Sierra Vista and Sunrise Measure Up?

So, how well did Sierra Vista and Sunrise schools do in creating a culture for change? Reflecting on the description of Sierra Vista Elementary, we can see the collaborative culture evolving and learn that it is valued. That one teacher mentioned that the Sierra Vista staff discussed on a daily basis what needed to change at the school is telling of how much the school focused on collaboration and change–essential for success in school reform. At Sunrise, the collaborative culture Mr. Davis attempted to develop is eroding because teachers aren’t meeting regularly to reflect upon the reforms being initiated and how these reforms affect instruction and learning. It is important to note, too, that the Sunrise teachers’ congenial, social relationships are quite different from having collegial relationships that are professional in nature. Collegial faculty relationships are generally based on equality among all staff members and enable staff members to focus on their practice and how students are affected by their practice. Adults in schools who have a collegial relationship: (1) talk about practice; (2) observe each other engaged in the practice of teaching and administration; (3) work together on the curriculum by planning, designing, researching, and evaluating the curriculum; and (4) teach each other about teaching, learning, and leading.7

Having congenial relationships on campus, however, can help foster collegial relationships. For collegial relationships to build, a comfort level must be established. Many members of the Sunrise staff were quite comfortable with each other. Had Ms. Smith been more savvy about the importance of collegiality, she could have capitalized on the congeniality of the group to move them toward the professional, open relationships that could encourage the school reform process. Instead, she appeared to play favorites–asking for input from only certain teachers and being swayed by a vocal group at the school.

The differences between Sunrise and Sierra Vista were quite apparent, too, when teachers at the schools talked about their experiences reflecting on student learning and achievement. The Sierra Vista staff met frequently, discussed what was and what was not working in their classrooms, and valued collaborating with colleagues. Sunrise teachers, on the other hand, appeared to be concerned about their students’ learning, based on the comment from the veteran teacher at the school who believed teachers had their students’ best interests at heart. However, the Sunrise teachers did not have the guidance they needed to reflect on their instruction and the change process.


1A basic discussion of school context may be found in School Context: Bridge or Barrier to Change written by Victoria Boyd (Austin: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 1992).

2SEDL interview with Dennis Sparks, February 2, 2000.

3McLaughlin, M. W. and J. E. Talbert (1993). Contexts that Matter for Teaching and Learning. Stanford: Center for Research on the Context of Secondary School Teaching, Stanford University.

4Fullan, Michael (1992). Visions that Blind. Educational Leadership 49 (5), p. 20.

5Boyd, V. and S. M. Hord (1994). Schools as Learning Communities. Issues About Change, 4(1), 1.

6McLaughlin and Talbert (1993). Contexts that Matter for Teaching and Learning.

7As quoted in Victoria Boyd (1992), School Context, p. 53-54

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