Adjusting our view of education reform: Classroom culture is critical

Those of us in the education reform movement obsess over measuring student performance. Everything we focus on boils down to outcomes, outcomes, outcomes. But we’re missing something even more critical: Culture as an input. As blog reader and education author Phil Piety pointed out in a comment on my last blog, “school cultures [are] very important for student success.” The majority of teaching strategies in decorated educator Doug Lemov’s book “Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on a Path to College” are about creating effective classroom culture.

Most fundamentally, you can’t improve instruction and performance (period) if you don’t have control of the classroom culture. And to effectively adjust and manage that culture so that it promotes learning, you need to be able to see behavior patterns and develop planned approaches that foster positive classroom behaviors. Which means you need to be able to track what’s coming to be known as “classroom culture” data.

Quantifying classroom culture

What are those cultural inputs? And how do we quantify and impact them? Sarah Cargill blogged last week about ClassDojo, a software program designed to help teachers manage behavior and boost engagement in class. The program, writes Cargill, “allows educators to award students points for positive behavior such as participation, helping others, creativity, great insight, hard work and presentations using an electronic whiteboard and mobile device. Conversely, educators can take away points for disruptions, tardiness, unfinished homework, disrespect, interruptions and time out of the chair.”

Similarly, Kickboard for Teachers, an edtech startup based out of New Orleans, has designed a tool which incorporates behavior and discipline with the goal of helping school communities develop a strong sense of school culture.

If these programs seem overly indexed on negative indicators, think again. The importance of both systems lies not in the fact that they enable educators to log a mass of black marks, but that they allow teachers to identify clear patterns, both positive and negative, that can be proactively addressed to improve both classroom culture and individual learning trajectories.

Most fundamentally, you can’t improve instruction and performance (period) if you don’t have control of the classroom culture.

Redirecting our work

The simple truth is that if those of us working in education reform want to see progress, we can’t decouple inputs and outcomes. So it’s about time (err, way past time) to shift our discussions away from pure outcomes, and towards helping educators measure, manage and master the critical cultural inputs to improve student learning.