Why School Culture Matters

By Ashley Berner

As the title of this newsletter suggests, magnet schools are distinct by design. From the first magnet school that opened in 1968 (McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma, Washington) until today, magnet schools have specialized in having distinctive missions. Magnet schools operate with clear purpose and practices; teachers, students, and parents know what a magnet school is about.

That’s a really good thing, because evidence from around the world suggests that studying within “distinctive educational communities in which pupils and teachers share a common ethos” vastly increases the odds of students’ acquiring academic and civic knowledge, skills, and sensibilities. Anthony Bryk et al. found this factor at work in American Catholic schools, for example, whose “communal culture” revolved around the belief that human beings have inherent value.

Education researcher, civil rights activist, and policy maker Charles Glenn wrote with respect to European school systems, which fund a panoply of diverse schools: “Schools with a distinctive identity . . . offer educational advantages deriving from their clarity of focus.” And Scott Seider observed the benefits of strong normative culture in three very distinctive urban schools in Boston.

Understanding school climate and culture may be particularly topical amidst the rise in mental-health issues among students and young people that began during the COVID-19 pandemic, as “socio-cultural elements of school life are increasingly understood to be important for student health and wellbeing.” In this sense, magnet schools have been ahead of the curve.

Like all institutions, though, even distinctive schools can lose their way. The leadership changes, demography shifts, teacher retention goes up and down, the financial picture changes, political polarization creates tension, a pandemic disrupts business as usual: there are lots of reasons why a school can experience mission drift. The question is, do you know where your culture is? And if it’s diffuse, what can you do about it?

Many school systems use climate or culture surveys to take the temperature of the environment; Panorama, Tripod, and the Five Essentials are among the better known. The Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, which I co-lead, has developed our own survey, School Culture 360, which thousands of schools across the country use on an annual basis. We help leaders pressure-test not only for students’ and teachers’ relationships, the presence of academic rigor, and parental engagement, but also for mission alignment and international indicators of civic formation. When it comes to school culture, the sum is greater than the parts. As two scholars of school culture put it, the term “culture” provides … an intuitively appealing way to help school leaders understand their school’s unwritten rules and traditions, customs, and expectations. The unofficial patterns seem to permeate everything.

The good news is that building a strong–and distinctive!–culture is a lever that every principal can pull to good effect, and magnet schools have a head start. “Mission alignment,” an “organic community,” and “belonging” are different ways to express what magnet schools exist to provide. Despite all the pressures that pertain to running a school in 2024, principals and teachers can lean into their distinctive culture with confidence. The students will thank you.

Ashley Berner, Ph.D., is Director and Associate Professor of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

Distinct by Design » Why School Culture Matters

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