Issue Number 9, September 1997

Technical and Symbolic Elements of School Improvement

School improvement, especially through a schoolwide approach, is neither easy nor simple. It requires a potent mix of careful planning and collegial interchange. Successful improvement occurs when the structures needed to change are in place and when a strong, collaborative school culture that inspires staff and community exists to support change. It demands both management and leadership on the part of principals, teachers, and often, parents and students.

In this issue we look at the technical and symbolic sides of school improvement. We will see how they are both an integral part of this process. That they must be blended and strengthened in schools for school improvement to be successful.

The Technical Side of School Improvement

The technical or structural side of school improvement is the one most educators know and understand. This involves the formal planning and implementing part of school reform.

The Technical Side involves the following:

  1. Developing clear goals
  2. Collecting and analyzing student performance data
  3. Designing an efficient planning model
  4. Developing a plan to achieve defined goals
  5. Implementing the plan effectively
  6. Adjusting and adapting the implementation to make the plan work
  7. Assessing the results of the improvement efforts
  8. Developing new goals and plans to make further improvements

This process is organized and managed collaboratively in many schools. It requires thoughtful reflection , careful planning, and understanding of the difficulties of the change process. This is the carefully structured and managed view of school improvement. It is important and useful, but it is only half of the process. To make school improvement work, a school should also pay attention to the symbolic side of the process. This involves knowing and working with the culture of the school.

The Symbolic Side of School Improvement

While the technical/structural side focuses on organizing, planning, and implementing school changes, the symbolic side highlights the importance of working with the complex, human aspect of school culture. School culture is the underlying set of norms, values, and beliefs held by staff, the traditions and rituals that celebrate purpose, and the cultural network of visionaries, storytellers, and heroines who keep hopes, dreams and communication flowing. The school culture can either make or break school reform efforts.

School leaders, teachers and principals, must understand and nurture a culture that supports improvement, collaboration, and a focus on student learning.

The Symbolic Side of school improvement involves:

  1. Understanding the school's norms, values and beliefs
  2. Assessing the connection between the existing school culture and the vision of what the school might become
  3. Creating transitional rituals to let go of old, unproductive beliefs and to celebrate the meaning of new visions of educational practice and purpose
  4. Working with the informal cultural network to develop support for emerging cultural patterns and values
  5. Transforming the culture through leadership, celebration of successes, and symbolic activity
  6. Encouraging periodic events to bring the school together to assess, enhance and deepen social and personal ties.
  7. Developing ceremonies and traditions that celebrate the positive, supportive elements of the school and its community.

The school culture needs to be understood, nurtured, and, if necessary, changed. How do educators accomplish this? Do a history of the school and look at current practices. Identify what norms and beliefs fit with a positive vision for the school, encourage and discuss them. Create transitional rituals such as retreats, community celebrations, or deep discussions of purpose to move on to new norms and values. Work closely with the informal leaders and "historians" of the school to focus on the positive, supportive ideals of the school. And hold regular times to assess where you are, move past mistakes, and celebrate accomplishments. Make the culture nurture the school improvement process.

Combining the Technical and Symbolic Elements of Improvement
School improvement requires both careful planning and supportive school cultures. Formal and informal leaders provide the energy and vision to help the school blend and balance these two elements of improvement. Without a vision and values, a plan is dry and heartless. Without a plan that is implemented carefully, a vision remains a lost hope. Combining both technical and symbolic elements can make schoolwide programs work effectively and with a deeper purpose.


This article is adapted from Terrence E. Deal and Kent D. Peterson (1991), "The Principal's Role in Change: Technical and Symbolic Aspects of School Improvement." Madison, WI. Wisconsin Center for Educational Research. (Used with permission.)

Deal, Terrence E. and Peterson, Kent D. (1994). The Leadership Paradox: Balancing Logic and Artistry in Schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass Publishers.

Wilson, Bruce and Firestone, William. (1987). "The Principal and Instruction: Combining Bureaucratic and Cultural Linkages." Educational Leadership, v. 45, n. 1.

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 Wisconsin­Madison. 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 coauthored with Terrence Deal.

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

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