School culture matters. Regulations (federal, state, district), whether related to RTI or another initiative, rarely mention the importance of culture. However, we are certain that, six months into any new effort, the difficulties that schools face will relate to the culture of the school, not the structures that have been established. RTI is organized passion…cultures are supported and sustained through structures. What do we mean by culture?
A positive school culture is rich in trust and respect; there is recognition that collaborative processes are fundamental. New initiatives are not repeatedly and haphazardly begun. Instead, depth (of students learning…of staff priorities) is valued over breadth. All students are valued and expected to make significant gains in their learning. Factors that may inhibit gains are viewed as temporary obstacles and challenges that will be met. All staff members accept responsibility for all students, students in other classrooms, students in other grade levels, students with disabilities, students who speak another language at home. The status quo is never accepted – as expectations for students are appropriately raised, schools recognize continuous improvement as the habit of great organizations. When areas for improvement are identified, change is accepted as an opportunity and all variables are considered – we’ll do whatever it takes. Schools view adult behaviors as having the most effective and significant influence on student learning and behaviors.
We have made errors, and have observed practices in schools, districts, and divisions, that have not lead to positive cultures:
- In our experiences, top-down decisions will never result in sustainable change. While we believe strongly in leadership and in leaders leading, we believe that all educators will agree that a balance of centralized (to organize, to guide, to facilitate communication) and de-centralized (to provide input, to shape the actual products, to refine the work) is the wisest, most respectful, and most productive way in which RTI, or any other powerful system, should be initiated. When decisions are made by fiat, from central offices or school offices, without meaningful inputs from stakeholders, we fear that RTI will fail to fulfill its potential. A collaborative approach to designing and implementing a system of supports for all students will more likely result in support from principals and staffs; while this is critical, this approach involves much more. School-based staff members can identify what’s working well, can accurately report current realities and states of readiness, and can report on areas where professional development is most needed. Chances are great that pockets of excellence exist within school districts; identifying these areas of skill and expertise from within the organization can pay great dividends.
- Leading change in the way described in the previous bullet will take time. When change is rushed, perceived efficiencies associated with centralized strategies tend to dominate. As significantly, initiating change too quickly may lead to insufficient time for stakeholders to study and process the proposed endeavor. Professional development may be rushed or attended to more briefly than is necessary. The most adequate resources may be missed and unnecessary compromises may be made. We find that planning for RTI-based practices six months to one year in advance leads to the deepest, most successful, most sustained change.
RTI is organized passion – the passionate actions that embody the collective belief that all students will learn at high levels. Moreover, RTI represents the most comprehensive, research-based, and logical set of solutions that will ensure that students graduate from high school ready for college or a skilled career. There are not many educators with whom we interact who doubt the wisdom. While a few of these committed colleagues report that they still come across educators who are intimidated by the changes required by 21st century learning – an intimidation that can come across as reluctance to change – most of our colleagues simply want a roadmap to guide them through the work.