Systems Improvement for All Students, Including Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities
Chapter 5: Sustaining an Open and Collaborative Culture
To support improvement work, school districts need to cultivate organizational cultures that are collaborative, caring, ethical, equitable, inclusive, and amenable to positive change. But changing organizational culture is not easy. It requires patience, commitment, and flexibility. A culture of openness and inquiry gives everyone space for the risk-taking and hard work of improving their practice.
Five Practices for Sustaining an Open and Collaborative Culture
Five sets of leadership practices can help create and sustain an open and collaborative culture:
- building a collaborative culture;
- extending care to all individuals and groups that interact with the district and its schools;
- developing, maintaining, and enforcing high standards of ethical conduct;
- implementing rules and developing norms that promote inclusion, equity, and social justice; and
- using self-reflection, critique, and evidence of strengths and needs to improve individual and organizational practice.
The first set of leadership practices involves building a collaborative culture. A collaborative culture brings together diverse perspectives and talents in service of a common goal. It values, and responds to, the needs and contributions of all its members. It provides a safe environment that encourages members to share their ideas and listen to, value, and act on the ideas of others. When members of a collaborative culture work together to put into practice ideas that reflect a multitude of perspectives, collective efficacy grows.
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Stephen Barr, Assistant Commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, describes the development of a collaborative culture (2:22).
School districts develop a collaborative culture by ensuring that all voices are heard and valued—those of parents and guardians, students, community members, and personnel. Districts begin this process by addressing some hard questions: Whose feedback are we ignoring? Who is missing from the district’s leadership teams? How can we remove barriers and increase inclusiveness? How can we use feedback to drive improvement?
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Josh Englehart, Superintendent of Ohio’s Painesville City Local School District, describes some of the ways his district incorporates the input and talents of diverse groups of stakeholders in addressing improvement issues (2:05).
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Pete Pirone, Superintendent of Struthers City School District (OH), credits the leadership structures and programs that are part of Ohio’s improvement framework (the Ohio Improvement Process, or OIP) for helping to create a collaborative culture in his district that values and relies on multiple perspectives (1:48).
Districts prioritize collaboration by establishing non-negotiables that promote and guide the collaborative process. They establish structures and allocate resources to provide opportunities for everyone to collaborate. Finally, districts find ways to encourage sharing, affirm everyone’s contributions, and celebrate group accomplishments.
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Michael McCormick, Superintendent of the Val Verde Unified School District (CA), describes some of the ways his district has established a safe and affirming culture of collaboration (5:35).
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Bethany Carlson, former Principal in the Struthers City (OH) Schools, discusses the nurturing process that is sometimes needed to help teams in her district—where collaborative teamwork is a non-negotiable—develop and maintain a collaborative culture (1:07).
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Superintendent Englehart describes how his district intentionally structures instructional decision-making and professional development to provide opportunities for sharing diverse perspectives and engaging in collaborative inquiry (2:07).
The second set of leadership practices for sustaining an open and collaborative culture involves extending care to all individuals and groups that interact with the district and its schools. Extending care to all means more than just initiating an open-door policy or creating a diversity statement, although both of these can be positive steps. District and school personnel extend care when they presume the competence of the individuals and groups with whom, and about whom, they speak. They also extend care when they advocate for the well-being of those individuals and groups regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation. Extending care to all seems straightforward, but implicit biases make this more complicated than we might expect.
Implicit biases are our unexamined assumptions and beliefs about the merits, competence, and moral character of other people and groups. Everyone has implicit biases. They control how we think about and act toward others. Our biases might take the form of value judgments about others’ appearance, behaviors, beliefs, or values. Implicit biases require hard and sometimes uncomfortable work to challenge and eliminate. The steps in this difficult process include:
- identifying and taking ownership of our negative beliefs;
- using facts to correct our mistaken ideas about others;
- getting to know people we avoided due to our biases; and
- developing empathy for those we might have previously dismissed or diminished.
The third set of leadership practices involves developing, maintaining, and enforcing high standards of ethical conduct. School districts have rules that define standards of behavior. Many of these rules come from federal and state laws and policies. Others are requirements established by professional associations. These district expectations are sometimes written in a district code of conduct. Motivation to adhere to a code of conduct is extrinsic. The rules, and the consequences for not following them, come from external sources.
Extrinsic motivation, however, does little to promote a collaborative culture. Districts also need to develop and uphold high ethical standards that reflect the needs and concerns of all district stakeholders (students, families, teachers, district and school leaders, and community members). Ethical standards are guided by an internalized moral compass. TIES value statements are a good example (https://tiescenter.org/about/core-values).
Internalized ethical standards shape a district’s norms. Educators, students, families, and community members see them as the right way to be and to act (“the way we do things around here”). Taken together, codes of conduct and high ethical standards help create and sustain an open and collaborative culture.
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Superintendent McCormick cites the foundational role of ethics in creating an equitable system that is essential for meeting the instructional needs of all students in his district (1:06).
The fourth set of leadership practices focuses on implementing rules and developing norms that promote inclusion, equity, and social justice. These practices build on the third set of leadership practices. Districts draw from their codes of conduct, their ethical standards, and their equity goals to determine the actions district personnel need to take in order to promote inclusion, equity, and social justice. Similar to the non-negotiables that govern collaborative work, these non-negotiables translate district values into how district personnel should act.
The following are examples of rules of this type:
- All district personnel must interrupt any use of derogatory language in communications among students, among staff, between staff and students, and between staff and community members.
- All students are general education students. Special education services are supplementary supports.
- Assignments of students to classrooms will reflect proportional representation.
- One-on-one support from a paraprofessional is considered to be a temporary measure to help a student acclimate to an inclusive educational setting and must be faded over a reasonable period of time in accordance with provisions specified in the student’s IEP.
Non-negotiables that address issues of inclusivity, equity, and social justice shape district norms. Actions that, at first, might seem complicated or impractical become, over time, the normal way things are done in the district.
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Amanda McNinch, Director of Special Services in the Struthers City Schools (OH), describes how social justice training in her district led to new expectations that the assignment of students to classrooms be based on proportional representation, and that collaborative teacher teams provide instruction and support to inclusive groups of students (2:44).
An open and collaborative culture provides a safe space for critical self-examination and, indeed, welcomes it. This final set of leadership practices addresses the use of self-reflection, critique, and evidence of strengths and needs to improve individual and organizational practice. Improvement starts with work we do on ourselves as individuals and in teams. The inquiry process that plays an essential role in systems improvement provides the framework for this work. Our commitment to inclusivity, equity, and social justice provides the motive; and our dedication to the students, families, and communities we serve provides the impetus. The non-judgmental and non-punitive nature of a collaborative culture establishes an environment where people feel secure enough to learn and grow.
Self-reflection involves taking stock of ourselves and of our organization. It means considering evidence of current strengths and weaknesses. The process requires that we ask, and find the answers to, key questions that apply to all district personnel and all leadership teams: “What worked, and for whom?” “What didn’t work, and for whom?” “Why?” These questions lead to the fundamental improvement question, “What can I (or we) do better next time?”
Self-reflection, especially when practiced with others in a group, helps build openness to critique from others—what is sometimes called, critical-friend feedback. When we’re receptive to hearing critical feedback, we can learn a lot. This learning can give us insights about how to improve and how to take steps toward becoming our best selves.
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Commissioner Barr explains that a district’s collaborative culture enables educators to use self-reflection and the critical feedback of others to improve their professional practice (1:08).
A district’s non-negotiables relating to collaboration, equity, and inclusivity contribute directly to the ability of district personnel and the system as a whole to benefit from inquiry processes. For example, if self-reflection reveals implicit biases that cause us to attribute the low performance of a group of students to their supposedly unchangeable limitations, we are obligated to do the hard work of looking at and changing our assumptions and practices. Openness to the critical feedback generated through a systemic inquiry process enables a school district to make progress toward meeting its improvement goals.
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Superintendent McCormick believes that a district’s collaborative culture makes it more likely for evidence--whether obtained through self-reflection, critical feedback, or examination of data--to drive individual and organizational improvement (1:51).