“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” – Peter Drucker

This famous quote was referenced by Talia Milgrom-Elcott of the Urban Education Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York as we discussed a series of focus groups of public school teachers.  It is a pointed reminder about the importance of understanding culture in trying to undertake any policy or structural reforms, especially in a system with roots over a thousand years in the making.

Many education reformers are attempting to impose an alien culture on public schools and it is not going well. The alien culture is that of traditional businesses, which calls for command and control, top down management, competition, monetary incentives and the use of so-called “objective standardized testing” to insure “accountability.”

When teachers hear such concepts they recoil for understandable cultural reasons. First of all, schools run on the idea of collaboration rather than competition. While principals are supposed to lead, they aren’t actually in complete control and teachers have traditionally had a great deal of independence in creating their own lesson plans, classroom tests, etc.

If you want to impose financial incentives to boost student achievement, teachers wonder:  “who gets the credit or blame for student progress when all of us – including other teachers, parents and students – play a part?” “If you are going to measure progress with standardized tests, are there standardized students to measure?”  “What about kids with bad parents?”

The irony about the notion that “schools should be run more like businesses” is that the most successful businesses have long since abandoned the command and control model in favor of creating a culture of collaboration that empowers workers on the front lines with the authority to make more of their own decisions. They have learned that money isn’t the only incentive that can be used to motivate workers.

Changing culture is a long, arduous process. Today’s reform advocates operating from corporate boardrooms and state legislatures are ill equipped and poorly situated to do the hard work that can only be undertaken from within schools.  By recognizing what is good about the culture of schools and working with it rather than trying to impose a new corporate culture, they might be more successful.