Issue Number 11
November 1998

"Toxic Cultures and the Problems of Change"
[Adapted from Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership, by Terrence Deal and Kent Peterson, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998).

If schools are to change and improve, many things must be in place: leadership, a clear mission, high expectations, resources, time, collegiality, a knowledge of teaching and learning, a systematic approach to planning, and a positive, professional culture. Many of these ingredients are structural requirements for change and improvement efforts to flourish. But some of these are aspects of the school's culture and climate. In this issue we will look at the ways negative or "toxic" cultures can inhibit, slow, and even stop school improvement.

School culture is the underlying set of norms, values, traditions, ceremonies, and unwritten rules of behavior, action, and thinking. The school culture is built over time as educators cope with problems, deal with changing students and staff, and deal with successes and failures. Over time the group develops a set of values and beliefs that are the glue that keeps it together. Oftentimes the culture is positive, nurturing, and professional-and supportive of change and improvement. Sometimes, though, the culture has developed dysfunctional values and beliefs, negative traditions, and caustic ways of interacting. These are what Deal and Peterson (1998) have called "toxic cultures."

In toxic cultures, staff :

  1. View students as the problem rather than as their valued clients.
  2. Are sometimes part of negative subcultures that are hostile and critical of change.
  3. Believe they are doing the best they can and don't search out new ideas.
  4. Frequently share stories and historical perspectives on the school that are often negative, discouraging, and demoralizing.
  5. Complain, criticize, and distrust any new ideas, approaches, or suggestions for improvement raised by planning committees.
  6. Rarely share ideas, materials, or solutions to classroom problems.
  7. Have few ceremonies or school traditions that celebrate what is good and hopeful about their place of work.

These schools are not fun places to work in and seldom try to improve what is going on. Toxic cultures inhibit and limit improvement efforts in several ways.

How do schools deal with "toxicity" in their culture? Deal and Peterson (1998) suggest several things educators can do. These include:

It is up to school leaders--principals, teachers, and often parents--to help overcome the debilitating influence of negative cultures and to rebuild and reinforce positive student-focused cultures. Without positive, supportive cultures, reforms will falter, staff morale and commitment will wither, and student learning will decline.


T. E. Deal and Peterson, K. D. (1998). Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

This column is prepared by Kent D. Peterson, Ph.D., Senior Training and Research Specialist for this Center and Professor of Educational Administration, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has written extensively for both scholarly and practitioner publications and worked with schools and leadership institutes across the country. His current book is The Leadership Paradox co-authored with Terrence Deal.

The activities reported in this document were supported by the U.S. Department of Education under #S283A50012-95B funded by the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE), and by the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER), School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. The opinions expressed in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of OESE or of WCER.

Top of the page | Welcome! | Previous Issues | Let Us Know!
Return to the CC-VI Home Page.