I had an experience in 1982 that forever changed my view on school improvement. I was asked to give a workshop in two schools in the same district on formative assessment. In the first school, the workshop was warmly received, and when I returned two weeks later, teachers had been trying out many of the strategies enthusiastically. I covertly patted myself on the back.
At the second school, there was lackluster response, and no one was trying out anything as far as I could see. I wracked my brain to see what I had done differently or poorly at the second school, and soon realized that the reaction in neither school had anything to do with me (one of many humbling experiences in my years as a staff developer). It had to do with the adult culture of each school. The first school was a place where teachers were eager for learning, in close and frequent communication with one another, and constantly experimenting with new techniques to get better. Soon another powerful experience gave me some powerful back-up for that.
I was a member of a magazine club that same year with Roland Barth, Kim Marshall, Matt King and Bill Dandridge. We would rotate to one another’s houses once a month and each shared an article in which we thought there was something significant about teaching, learning, or leadership. In the fall of that year, Roland shared Judith Warren Little’s 1982 article in The American Education Research Journal titled: “Norms of Collegiality and Experimentation: Workplace Conditions of School Success”. What an eye opener!
Little was a descendent of the Effective School researchers of the 1970s, renowned scholars such as Ron Edmonds, Larry Lezotte, and Wilbur Brookover who had identified schools that did well for children despite seemingly harmfulcrippling neighborhood and family conditions.
The Effective Schools research came up with “Effectiveness Factors”, for example high expectations; clean, safe environment; and strong leadership, helpful, no doubt, and eye-opening to gainsay the Coleman Report (1966) of the previous decade. The Coleman Report indicated schools were helpless in the face of negative socio-economic family and neighborhood conditions.
Similar to those scholars, Little identified schools that succeeded against the odds and compared them to those that did not. She, however, had a different focus question. She didn’t examine aspects of their programs, rather she asked how the adults treated one another. So, she would hang out in the teachers’ lounge and see what people talked about. She would arrive early and stay late and see what the adults were doing and with whom.