Reopening: Moving Toward More Equitable Schools
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New edition of Ron Berger's A Culture of Quality

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    Ben Smith

It has been over fifteen years since A Culture of Quality was first published, and in those years, Ron Berger has learned and shared much about what truly matters in education. Below, in the preface to the new edition, Mr. Berger writes about what he thinks about when he thinks about A Culture of Quality.

School Culture Still Matters


Since I wrote A Culture of Quality over fifteen years ago, much has changed in the educational landscape. States now set learning standards and mandate annual standardized tests, and No Child Left Behind sets national growth metrics for those tests. Charter schools present an alternative model of school governance. New technologies make data available almost anywhere and anytime. Yet some things have not changed. The mission of public education – to prepare students to be informed, capable, just, and compassionate citizens in our democracy – remains the same. Engaging our youth to take pride in doing their best work and treating others with respect is no easier today than it ever was. We still underestimate the capacity of our students and teachers and focus on “fixing” individuals rather than building communities that bring out the best in everyone. We use narrow and shallow metrics of success for students, teachers, and schools and spend little time considering the features of comprehensive school cultures in effective schools that shepherd students to success.

I no longer work at my town’s elementary school, which is in great shape and is still a place of joy and success in learning. I support cultures of quality in schools across the country at Expeditionary Learning (EL), a nonprofit school improvement organization whose mission parallels this book’s vision: creating schoolwide communities that engage and motivate students and teachers to support each other and hold each other accountable for their best.

After A Culture of Quality was published, urban educators approached me with questions: Was this relevant to urban schools, or was it possible only in small rural settings? Can a philosophy like this live at scale? I have promising news. EL works with more than 160 schools nationally – mostly in urban, low-income communities – with real success. The EL model embraces the broader, deeper notion this book describes of student achievement – not only doing well on tests, but also thinking critically and creatively, doing work of excellence and beauty, and developing character. These EL urban schools succeed, but not because of a single powerful feature. They have high expectations, strong instruction, and a curriculum rich with realworld projects and authentic purpose; their students contribute to their communities through academic research and civic action. Most importantly, they work to embed those features in a schoolwide culture of achievement in which every student is known, supported, and engaged, and where students take ownership of their own learning and are leaders of positive character. There is no easy answer to school quality: these schools and students sweat over their successes and push each other through challenges. They make their learning public, so they can reflect on it individually and collectively and continually improve. Above all, students and teachers are compelled by the power of the whole school culture to accomplish more than they thought possible.

These days I carry around a suitcase of inspirational student work, mostly by students from low-income and urban communities. I also bring charts to show that these students significantly outperform their peers on state tests. But here’s the best evidence I can share: last June, I attended the first graduation at an urban public high school EL helped found in Springfield, Massachusetts. In a city where almost half the students don’t graduate, every member of this founding freshman class graduated from high school and was accepted to college. Sitting with their families – witnessing their tears, their shouts, their pride – was a stirring reminder for me of what a culture of quality can mean.