Communications scholar Marshall McLuhan once said, "We don't know who discovered water, but we know it wasn't the fish." Water shapes a fish's existence so profoundly — and, swimming right in the middle of it, the fish can't grasp how water impacts them. In education, a school's "water" is its culture, that complicated combination of shared values, norms, beliefs, and expectations. It manifests in actions as simple as the way a principal recognizes staff accomplishments, and as complex as the processes staff members use to mediate conflict or the ideas that shape student motivation.
School culture is hard to characterize and cultivate, but it's arguably the defining factor in school change. Shifting culture could prove to be the trickiest — but most essential — piece of today's most pressing education challenge: implementing the Common Core State Standards.
Schools in most states across the country spent the last school year dipping a toe into the Common Core, learning about the new benchmarks, mapping curricula to uncover gaps in learning, and reshuffling schedules to facilitate discussion of the standards. But if last year, for many districts, involved wading in the shallow end of the pool, this year schools will need to fully dive in. Principals and teachers have a demanding road ahead of them, as they prepare to accommodate new assessments and work with districts to solidify curricula. But despite the myriad challenges, the principals we've talked to are looking forward to the future. Their buzzwords? Collaboration, innovation, and reflection.