Largely because of evolutionary developments in the current school reform movement, school administrators find themselves facing many of the challenges that have been endemic to the work of community educators. After tinkering with standards, curricula, and instructional approaches for nearly two decades, policy makers in most states have concluded that meaningful reform will not occur unless schools engage in fundamental restructuring. That is to say, the desired level of improvement will not be attained unless educational leaders reshape governance, including key facets of operations such as decision making, the distribution of power, and relationships between schools and their broader communities. It is in this vein that adaptations in school reform have created a situation in which many principals and superintendents are encouraged to pursue goals that always have been integral to the community education concept.

The convergence of contemporary school reform initiatives and the community education philosophy is significant for at least three reasons. First, school administrators can learn a great deal by studying the history, philosophy, and practice of community education. This is especially true with respect to examining past practice and determining the successes and failures in specific tasks, such as creating school councils. Second, school administrators and community educators now have a common interest that should induce them to build close working relationships. This may not occur, however, if the parties fail to understand how and why their role expectations have become inextricably intertwined. And third, both groups of educators face a common barrier in their efforts to build a new generation of American schools. This formidable obstacle is a well-established institutional culture that serves to sustain bureaucratic-like values and beliefs in the public schools. The primary contention put forward in this article is that the full potential of community education and school reform will not be realized unless the practitioners who lead both efforts understand (a) the nature of school culture, (b) the reasons why culture is a change barrier, and (c) why a new strategy is needed to overcome this obstruction.

The Nature of School Culture

In its most basic form, culture is a set of basic premises developed by an organization as it sustains itself by dealing with both internal and external conflicts (Schein 1992). In essence, it is the accumulation of assumptions based on what has worked in the past. Culture constitutes the unwritten, feeling part of an organization (Daft 1994); and like society and all other formal organizations, schools are characterized by a set of shared values and beliefs. Culture also provides the real goals (as opposed to the stated goals) of a school (Owens 1995).

Culture is maintained by having experienced members of the organization enculturate new members. In schools, new teachers learn many things informally from established employees. This induction process, commonly called socialization, often is critical to determining whether a person will become a permanent part of the organization. Myths, legends, and rituals are typically used to communicate aspects of the culture (Owens 1995).

Culture is rather complex and consists of three levels: artifacts, espoused values, and underlying assumptions (Schein 1992). The first involves visible structures and processes; the second includes strategies, goals, and philosophies; the third is composed of unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. The first two levels are easier to discern, because they are the more visible manifestations of culture. The third level, the one providing the roots for culture, is often imperceptible and requires detailed study before it is accurately assessed.

Seymour Sarason (1996), a noted psychologist, devoted many years to studying school cultures. Observing schools across the country, he noted that there were behavioral regularities that determined the distribution of power and formal roles for teachers and administrators. He concluded that these recurring aspects of organization and behavior were products of a pervasive public school culture that had become virtually immutable. His judgements appear to have been predicated largely on artifacts and espoused values — the aspects of culture that were most visible to him as he visited schools.

But public schools are not completely alike. E. Mark Hanson (1996) wrote, “Various idiosyncratic elements help shape a school’s culture, such as early history, community expectations, leadership, traditions involving standards of excellence, and rates of teacher turnover” (p. 316). Individuality in culture most often exists at the level of underlying assumptions. The presence of distinguishing chracteristics is supported by both the literature and research. In their studies of effective schools, for example, Purkey and Smith (1985) concluded that educators in highly productive institutions commonly held assumptions not present in less productive schools (e.g., all children can learn effectively). Thus while all public schools may resemble each other at the levels of artifacts and espoused values, distinctive charcteristics often exist at the deeper levels of institutional culture, i.e., at the level of basic underlying assumptions. Collectively, the three levels of culture produce norms. Unlike tangible policy and rules, norms constitute unwritten and informal social codes (Willower 1991). They are enforced and sustained through the interactions of individuals and groups, and they symbolically tell teachers and principals how to deal with internal and external (e.g., neighborhood, town, city) matters.

Culture, as perceived by educators working in a school, appears to have the strongest influence on dispositions toward change (Leithwood, Jantzi and Fernandez 1994). And the level of basic underlying assumptions has had the most influence in this regard. Varying dispositions toward changes in authority or roles, for example, help to explain why some schools have remained at arm’s distance from community education. If teachers and principals believe that involving people from outside the school only breeds conflict and inefficiency, or if they believe that schools should restrict services to the children enrolled, they can be expected to resist much of what community education seeks to accomplish. Today, superintendents and principals also are discovering the power of school culture to block change as they encourage iterations of restructuring, such as site-based management or the creation of school policy councils.

Culture as an Obstacle to School Improvement

Many of the universal aspects of school culture evolved from the formative years of public education. Experiences related to establishing urban school systems during and immediately following the Industrial Revolution were especially influential. Bureaucratic notions of technical efficiency and control were dominant ideas that eventually separated administration and teaching into essentially separate occuptions; they also encouraged schools to insulate themselves from external interventions (i.e., community involvement) as a means to avoid conflict (Kowalski 1995a). These assumptions about the ideal organization were widely accepted by influential school board members, superintendents, and other public officials; consequently many facets of bureaucracy were infused into schools. Newly-appointed educators were socialized to these norms both through their professional studies and through their induction to work in schools. Over time, the collective effects solidified an institutional bias that things should remain as they have always been (Streitmatter 1994).

Culture-based resistance to change can be idea-specific or global. In the former category, ideas are rejected because they do not adhere to the norms and values commonly shared by teachers and administrators (Razik and Swanson 1995). For example, cooperative learning may be cast aside because a school’s staff favors intense competitions among students. In the latter category, initiatives fail because school cultures are negatively disposed toward the process of change. That is, any initiative potentially disrupting standard practice is assumed to be threatening to the organization’s well-being. A general disdain for change continues to be present in a high percentage of the public schools. In part, this proclivity stems from the fact that these institutions were established as agencies of stability (Spring 1989); that is, they were exected to enculturate students to the dominant values of American society — not serve as agencies for reshaping society. Accepting scientific management and the principles of bureaucracy further intensified negative perspectives toward change. This attitude was nurtured over the years by a reward-punishment system that discouraged educators from taking risks or attmpting to do things differently. In schools where all change is viewed as counterproductive, educators often instinctively and routinely oppose forces that have the potential to disrupt the status quo.

The ability of culture to block change becomes apparent when past reform initiatives are analyzed. Historically, would-be reformers used either rational or political strategies to pursue their goals. The former emanates from a belief that desired behaviors can be produced among those who must implement change by exposing them to new knowledge (e.g., sending teachers to workshops). This approach is based on two assumptions: ignorance is a primary change barrier; educators will act rationally once they gain new knowledge. Not commonly considered are cultural dispositions toward the process of change and toward the specific ideas being proposed. The rational strategy has been widely espoused in public education, and it has been the preferred strategy of many community educators.

By contrast, political approaches to school reform involve pressure generated by power elites usually functioning outside the school and education profession. During the 1980s, for example, state policy makers attempted to force educators to do things differently by promulgating mandates into state law or policy; penalties and rewards were often used to induce compliance. This strategy is exemplified by actions such as requiring longer school years, increasing graduation requirements, and setting higher licensing standards for educators.

Expeience has shown, however, that rational and political strategies have had little effect on the basic structure and operations of schools. While they may generate temporary alterations in behavior or school structure, educators and school governance often revert to their former states once the pressures for change subside (Fullan and Miles 1992; Sarason 1996). Educators repeatedly have demonstrated an ability to insulate themselves from professional and political pressures; the nature of their work permits them to exercise individuality once their classroom or office doors are closed. They also have developed in recent decades collective power which enables them to be even more obstinate. Teacher unions and professonal associations, for example, have exercised considerable influence over local, state, and national policies since the 1960s (Sarason 1996).

In summary, neither exposure to new knowledge nor brute political force has been able to reshape permanently the organizational structure of schools. Given this history, there is little reason to believe that either strategy will be more effective in the future. Both approaches fail to challenge what is in the minds and hearts of the people who control and operate the schools, and it is these emotions and fundamental assumptions that ultimately determine their behavior.

Cultural Change Paradigms

Ignoring or bypassing culture appears to be associated with one or more of the following conditions: (a) change agents do not understand the nature and dynamics of organizational culture; (b) change agents deem culture to be unimportant; (c) change agents judge educators to be powerless, rational, and obedient public servants; (d) the importance of culture is recognized but seen as immutable. To overcome these mindsets, community educators and school administrators should have an understanding of how culture is formed, how it influences thinking and behavior, and how it can be transformed (Greenfield 1991). The reshaping of culture first requires school climates in which open discussions can occur; second, the process requires resources sufficient to create a capacity for change; third, there is a need to bring to the surface deep underlying assumptions about the purposes of schooling, professional roles, the distribution of power, and so forth.

One of the differences between cultural change and the other approaches involves the chronology of actions. In political and rational strategies, programs and targets are predetermined. That is to say, what is to be changed and who will be affected are already decided. In cultural approaches, objectives evolve only after the members of the school-community are able to identify the current elements of culture and to determine the extent to which these elements either enhance or hinder the goals of the school. The strategies also differ with respect to decision making. Whereas rational and political strategies are controlled by relatively few people possessing authority and power, cultural strategies rely on democratic discussions and shared decisions. In cultural change, essential decisions ought to be molded by the ideas, feelings, and opinions of those who are the primary targets of change — students, educators, and community members (Marshak 1996).

Rather than being managers who provide directions and control, leaders (community educators and school administrators) assume the responsibility of guiding the journey to a better future. Rather than directing and managing, leaders concentrate on listening, synthesizing, and sharing vital information. The intent is to create common understandings, beliefs, and values that determine what is done and how it is done (Prestine and Bowen 1993). And because accuracy of information is essential, a change agent must earn trust and build collegial relationships as these interactions occur. Unfortunately, enculturation for most school administrators has been incompatible with these expectations. Rather than emphasizing democratic leadership, traditional administrative roles underscored the managerial ideals of technical efficiency and control.

In the literature, aspects of cultural change are visible in topics such as transformational leadership (e.g., Leithwood 1992), collaboration (e.g., Leithwood, Begley and Cousins 1992), and teacher professionalism (Kowalski 1995b). Thomas Sergiovanni’s (1994) notion of a school as a community exemplifies a form of restructuring requiring a cultural reformation. He observed that change is often thwarted by a tendency to conceptualize schools exclusively as formal organizations. Noting that life in organizations and life in communities differ in both quality and kind, he proposed that schools concentrate on community building as a means of achieving renewal. He wrote, “the connection of people to purpose and the connections among people are not based on contracts but commitments” (p. 4). He added that in organizations, relationships among people and groups are created by others; in communities, people construct their own social lives.

Metaphors, such as Sergiovanni’s learning community, are predicated on the belief that change can and should occur from the center of a school and be culturally based (Trimble 1996). Internally, efforts to reshape culture unavoidably include a reconsideration of normative behaviors and a reconfiguration of social relationships within the school (e.g., how people interact with each other to create mutual dependences). Externally, these efforts extend to rebuilding a symbiotic relationship between a school and its external environment. Such connections are absolutely critical to reform, because public schools and their environments are politically indivisible (Sarason 1996) — a reality that is at the very core of the community education concept.

Concluding Thoughts

A recent poll conducted by Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup (1997) indicates that three-fourths of the population favors improving the existing public schools rather than pursuing alternative forms of education. This suggests that school restructuring has a political advantage over concepts such as vouchers, charter schools, and choice. It also indicates that pressures to engage in restructuring are not apt to subside in the near future. Hence, it is reasonable to conclude that school administrators and community educators will continue to find themselves seeking similar objectives and encountering a common barrier, school culture.

The argument is made here that school cultures opposed to change have been a primary resason why the concept of community education has not been more widely adopted. Experiences in this realm suggest that school administrators are likely to have the same experience, especially if they rely exclusively on rational or political strategies. Both community educators and school administrators need to turn their attention to cultural change paradigms; they must acquire the knowledge necessary to employ such strategies; they must reexamine their personal roles as change agents; and they must work to create climates that permit cultural change. Because their goals are now very much alike, these two groups of educators have much to gain by joining forces to build a new generation of American schools.

Source: Theodore J. Kowalski, on Community Education Journal, Vol XXV, Nos 3 & 4, Spring/Summer 1997, pp5-8