Academic Press and Supportive Culture: Key Components of School Improvement

By Joseph Murphy, Ph.D.

Joseph Murphy
Joseph Murphy

In this book, we establish that there is an essential school improvement algorithm, one that is both simple and elegant:

School Improvement = Academic Press + Supportive Community

The equation represents the core of school improvement work in the modern era. Another parsimonious model for this narrative is the double helix. Both encapsulations inform us that:

  1. These are the two critical components of school improvement
  2. They are most powerful in tandem
  3. They work best when they wrap around each other like strands in a rope

We also explain how academic press and supportive culture can be created in schools, how can school improvement be realized. The first issue involves identifying and bringing the right materials to the school improvement building site.

The good news here is that there is an astonishing amount of agreement on the ingredients of school improvement, i.e., the content with the potential to create academic press and supportive culture:

Quality instruction

  • effective teachers
  • quality pedagogy


  • content coverage
  • time
  • rigor
  • relevance

Personalized learning environment for students

  • safe and orderly climate
  • meaningful connections
  • opportunities to participate

Professional learning environment for educators

  • collaborative culture of work
  • participation and ownership
  • shared leadership

Learning centered leadership

  • forging academic press
  • developing supportive culture

Learning centered linkages to the school community

  • connections to parents
  • linkages to community agencies and organizations

Monitoring of progress and performance accountability

  • performance-based goals
  • systematic used of data
  • shared accountability

Almost all school improvement work involves structural changes. This is appropriate as structural changes are needed to capture and hold reform initiatives. However, the prevalent assumption that structure (e.g., block scheduling) will provide desired results (e.g., better instruction, more student engagement) is without foundation. Here is the essence of the problem. Educators in their attempts to improve their schools identify activities that have worked elsewhere and then bring them home. These are almost universally structural transfers (e.g., academies, looping, charter schools, ungraded classrooms, detracking, and so forth). School leaders are often masters at brokering such transfers. Policy at all levels bolsters this approach to school improvement as well. The disheartening reality is that the DNA of these interventions, i.e., what made them work elsewhere, rarely makes the voyage as the structures are transferred. What schools end up with are empty shells of change, structures without the fuel to power improvement.Improvement principles are as important as the content elements in school improvement work. Working on the latter without attending to the former is a recipe for failure, akin to building beautiful rooms on the third floor of a house without load bearing walls.

Another encapsulation of the structural principle is that form follows function. Or alternatively, school improvement work is first and foremost about identifying the DNA of improvement then building out structures to contain that material. Violation of this construction principle is the norm in schools. It dooms a good deal of all improvement work, much more so than the selection of the wrong building materials.

Research from every sector of the school reform landscape confirms that context is critical. History and experience, type of school, nature of the community and the district, level of schooling, and an assortment of other contextual factors are important in the development of academic press and supportive culture. For example, creating personalized learning environments is somewhat different work in high schools than in elementary schools. Interventions, built or imported (even when they carry the right DNA), need to be shaped and contoured to fit the school context. When they are not, they tend not to fit. And when improvement efforts do not fit at the school, they rarely flourish.

The book also carries us into an understanding of school improvement work. Creating separate galaxies for content elements and their related anchor programs is a poor way to pursue school improvement. The better approach, and the only one with real hope of promoting successful change, is to bring whatever content is engaged into one galaxy with a common center of gravity. Employing building material that is of medium quality but that is universally supported and richly linked to other elements in the school will insure greater improvement than will using high quality content elements that are poorly connected.

We also learn that “organizational tools” need to be thoughtfully used if school improvement efforts are to bear fruit. There are a variety of ways to think about these supports or tools. Here we include: organizational structures (e.g., grade-level academies, K-2 schools), operating systems (e.g., procedures for assigning children to teachers and classes), policies (e.g., assigning struggling students to mandatory after school tutoring), and practices (e.g., the way the principal interacts with children in the school hallways). We find considerable evidence in the school improvement research that the tools to mix quality material and construction principles in a productive fashion are found in these categories.

Want to take a deeper dive into Dr. Murphy’s insight about effective school leadership strategies? His new book, Leading School Improvement: A Framework for Action is available at the Learning Sciences bookstore.

We believe that the most important thing a teacher or leader can do is to fuel each student’s passion for learning. When this is achieved, a lifetime of accomplishment becomes possible for that learner. Through partnerships with schools and districts throughout the country, we help educators and leadership transform each classroom into a powerful learning environment that prepares students for lasting success in school, the global workplace, and beyond. Our vision for the future is big and bright, and we love helping schools get there. Learn more about Learning Sciences International.