Research shows that combining high-quality curriculum and a strong school culture leads to long-lasting academic excellence. However, both of these elements of education can be tricky to research and measure. A school culture in a Catholic school versus a Waldorf school, for example, may be quite different, just as curriculum in these schools is likely to differ. Are they both potentially high quality and how does research qualify and quantify something so diverse?
When it comes to culture, Johns Hopkins University researcher and author, Ashley Berner, in her book Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School, says cultural strength often thrives within these differences. Her research has shown that any culture bound by a common purpose and an environment of trust and cohesion can boost academic results.
What does a positive school culture with a cohesive mission look like in practice?
Harvard University researcher, Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell, says that culture is ultimately and practically about connection. In the Harvard Graduate School of Education publication Useable Knowledge, the article What Makes a Good School Culture summarizes Bridwell-Mitchell’s take on good culture saying, “A culture will be strong or weak depending on the interactions between people in the organization. In a strong culture, there are many overlapping and cohesive interactions, so that knowledge about the organization’s distinctive character — and what it takes to thrive in it — is widely spread.”
She then speaks about core elements of a good school culture, which include shared beliefs and values, behavioral expectations and norms, and tangible manifestations of these values and norms. Not only is everyone in the school community connected by values, expectations and norms, but they are also supported within them. And, in most cases, the main people being held in the mission of support are teachers, who, in turn, support the students. This support leads to results labeled by the NC State University Hunt Institute as having “a significant impact on student achievement.”
In fact, the study The effects of school culture and climate on student achievement published in the International Journal of Leadership in Education (V. 12, 2009 - Issue 1) also found the results to be significant. Schools displaying “healthier climates” and culture – defined as having high levels of cohesion, morale, equality, communication, and resources – saw an average of 20% more students pass state exams.
As impressive as studies on school culture can be, experts admit that school culture alone is not quite enough. According to Berner’s colleague and fellow researcher at Johns Hopkins, Dr. David Steiner, curriculum is the second key piece of the boosted academic puzzle. As he likes to say to illustrate his point, “Try and think critically about nothing in particular.” What we learn, the knowledge itself, is as critical as the skill and a meaningful cohort to the culture.
According to Steiner and his Johns Hopkins School of Education report What We Teach Matters, policy makers have overlooked curriculum quality and diversity for centuries. He says, “Schools that switched from business as usual to higher-quality curriculum instructional methods could move students’ performance from the 50th to the 60th or even 70th percentile. When extrapolated across an entire class, grade, or school, such impacts could prove transformative.”
Just as we must ask how to define effective school culture, we must also ask how one defines high-quality curriculum. Steiner and the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) define it this way, saying curriculum must: “support effective, research-based pedagogy; be content-rich in sciences, social studies, and the arts.”
On the point of high-quality curriculum being content-rich in humanities, many other researchers have weighed in, including American literary critic and Harvard Professor, Helen Vendler, who, in her article titled Save the Humanities in Our Public Schools, says that the problem with insisting on humanities-rich curriculum is its immeasurability. But, she says, we must acknowledge its immeasurable impact.
“The arts and humanities are pervasive influences, and subtle ones,” says Vendler. “Evidence for immediate ‘public impact,’ so affrontingly demanded now by funding bodies, is simply not available as a defense of the humanities. But just as the long-term ‘public impact’ of basic science is undeniable, the long-term public impact of Mark Twain or William Faulkner is undeniable: they combine—with all the other creators—to give us lasting ideas of our American selves and American culture. The humanities are the study of human subjectivity, the study of human expressiveness and its fabrications in the arts, the study of consciousness bent on self-understanding. These are difficult areas of study to defend these days, because they do not admit of either progression or quantitative measurement.”
It is the slow and immeasurable quality of humanities curriculum that makes Drew Gilpin Faust, the President Emeritus and the Lincoln Professor of History in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, refer to it as “deliberate education” in this The Atlantic article, Learning to Be Human. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, she argued that studying the humanities is vital because it slows students down in a fast-paced world as they consider deep questions about life, the universe, and culture.
All going back to Dr. David Steiner’s call for curriculum with depth and, one could argue, deliberacy. As Steiner says, “Essentially, curriculum that is created to be content-rich, holistic, scaffolded, and helps the teacher approach student lessons with proven methodology, will have an impact.”
Curriculum And Culture
As we approach issues of culture and curriculum, research from Berner, Steiner and others would indicate that we should allow our schools to be places of distinct culture, rich curriculum, and varied, but effective pedagogy. We would also add that a lens of diversity, equity and inclusion will be key to finding way forward on a path to collective academic success through culture and curriculum.
Photo credit: Waldorf School of Lexington