Sacred Cows

noun: someone or something that has been accepted or respected for a long time and that people are afraid or unwilling to criticize or question


What are the “Sacred Cows” in your school? School improvement teams write plans about curriculum and instruction, closing achievement gaps, school culture, teacher working conditions, school safety, professional development, intervention and support, and goals for supporting the whole child. In most schools, the sacred cows are not identified. Some teachers are afraid to question tradition. If a first year teacher questions a sacred cow, he or she feels pressure from the staff to avoid that topic in future faculty meetings.


Sacred cows come in all shapes and sizes. Teachers and administrators often avoid discussing sacred cows, due to the “Fear of Conflict” (Lencioni,Five Dysfunctions of a Team). Educators make statements such as, “That’s a state mandate or the last Superintendent made us keep that schedule.” School districts should follow state mandates and local procedures, but these excuses are often made without supporting evidence. It is easier to maintain the status quo than address our sacred cows.


It is true, as would-be reformers often argue, that statutes, policies, rules, regulations, contracts, and case law make it tougher than it should be for school and system leaders to drive improvement and, well, lead. However, it is also the case that leaders have far more freedom to transform, reimagine, and invigorate teaching, learning, and schooling than is widely believed (Hess, 2013).


Sacred Cows Include:


Teachers and administrators cannot control mandated high-stakes testing. However, assessment throughout the school year is determined by the classroom teacher or teacher teams. Assessment should support student understanding and it should inform future instruction. If your school staff views assessment as multiple-choice only and feel like you have no control over how to assess students, you may have a sacred cow.



Traditionally, teachers have taught in isolation. District-led teams may write the curriculum and align standards, but teachers frequently close their door(s) and teach their curriculum. “When school staff have a more informed conception of curriculum, a teacher’s daily decisions about how to deliver instruction not only affect student achievement in that classroom but also future student achievement, for it is assumed that students will be entering the next classroom prepared to handle a more sophisticated or more expansive level of work” (Zmuda, Kuklis & Kline, 2004, p. 122). Several schools have implemented professional learning communities or learning teams. However, collaboration is still a sacred cow. Some teams still enter their weekly planning meeting without asking, “What are we collaborating about?”


Communication with Families and Stakeholders

In the 1970’s, a teacher would send a note home with a student. The parent would read and sign the note and return it to school the next day. School districts eventually moved to a weekly phone call. The phone call announces PTA meetings, school events, deadlines, and school highlights. The weekly phone call is still used in most school districts. When was the last time you conducted a survey or asked families how they would like to communicate? Schools can use a blog, Twitter, Facebook, a school app, and other strategies for sharing their message with families. Two-way communication provides families with the opportunity to ask questions and become more of a partner in their child’s education. The weekly phone call has become a Sacred Cow in some schools (See Weber, The Importance of Two-Way Communication).


Grading Practices

Does your school have a 10-point grading scale or a 7-point grading scale? While the grading scale is most likely mandated by state board policy or local board policy, there are options for grading student work, providing meaningful feedback, using rubrics, and communicating with families. If you want to address this sacred cow, a great place to begin is by reading and discussing A Repair Kit For Grading: Fifteen Fixes For Broken Grading (O’Connor, 2010). In most schools, each teacher develops their own grading system and it is confusing to students and families.



Homework is a sacred cow in education. Some content areas feel like nightly practice is required in order for students to grow and develop their skills. There are teachers who have not changed their homework assignments since 1990. Some teachers will argue that the pacing guide requires them to cover so much material that it cannot all be covered in class. When was the last time your staff had a professional conversation about homework? It is a conversation worth having.


Learning Space

Education is changing at a rapid pace. One thing that is often overlooked in education is the learning space. Learning space is determined by adults in most schools. The way learning space is organized highlights what the adults in a school value. Some schools value a safe and orderly/structured environment. A recent visit to one school showed an obvious preference to outdoor learning and project based learning.


School administrators often focus on state mandates and local goals such as standards, assessment, positive behavior intervention, student safety, technology integration, family involvement, reading programs, or closing achievement gaps. These are all important and require intentionality by principals and district leaders. In addition to all of the state and local requirements, learning space could change teaching and learning. If teachers and administrators took time to reflect on the importance of design, purpose, and space, they may find that the old structure is a barrier to student achievement. Is learning space a sacred cow or do teachers discuss how the space could be transformed?


Professional Development

Professional development should be valued by teachers and administrators, but many dread an early release day or a summer institute. Why do lifelong learners dread professional development? In many school districts, professional development has become a “Flavor or the Month,” “Silver Bullets for Teachers,” or “State Mandates You Should Know.”


Teachers across the United States are flocking to Edcamp for professional development, Twitter Chats, and Voxer. How can schools change professional development to meet the needs of teachers and administrators? Edcamp begins with the participants identifying topics they want to discuss. This seems to be the most effective way to address a sacred cow. If the topic is on the minds of teachers and it is having an impacting on teaching and learning, then it should be addressed. Most teachers do not receive professional credit for participating in Twitter Chats, but they see this as a form of collaboration and teacher voice. Schools and school districts could use Twitter chats as a form of professional development. Voxer allows the science teachers from the middle school to communicate with the science teachers from the high school. Most school districts still have two annual meetings where the science teachers share ideas and instructional strategies. It seems like curriculum alignment efforts and mentoring younger teachers could take place in real time if Voxer groups were developed. Teachers are often afraid to challenge professional development at the district level, because they feel that it will never change. Brainstorm a list of ways that professional development could change and how you would like to learn as a professional.


School Schedule

Can’t Touch This! (oh-oh oh oh oh-oh-oh)! The school schedule may have the greatest impact on teaching and learning. In some schools, the principal makes the school schedule. The school scheduling committee may have a voice in other schools. Does your school have a traditional schedule or a block schedule? Does the schedule meet the needs of the students? When is intervention time scheduled during the regular school day? When do teachers have time for common planning and assessing student work? Does the school lunch schedule dictate the instructional schedule? School scheduling needs to be addressed. There are consultants who can provide your staff with important items to consider. Typically, schools copy and paste last year’s schedule without asking important questions. Stephen Covey addressed “BIG Rocks” as our priorities. Does your school schedule reflect the priorities listed in your school improvement plan?


Summer School

Does a two-week summer school provide students with enough intervention and support to advance to the next grade level? What does research tell us about summer school? Is our school using technology to support student understanding? Is summer school used as a punishment for not completing assignments or is it seen as intervention and support? Do the teachers have a summer school curriculum or does each teacher get paid a stipend to create their own curriculum? How do we know that summer school is effective? The goal of this article is not to eliminate summer school, but to raise questions about the purpose of summer school. Summer school is a sacred cow. School districts have traditionally offered summer school as a way to support struggling students. When you have a sacred cow, staff should ask an important question, “Is it working?”


Questions for School Staff To Consider:

1.  What are the “Sacred Cows” in our school?

2. When do we plan to schedule time to discuss the “Sacred Cows”?

3.  Is it unsafe to address “Sacred Cows” in our school?

4.  What is the protocol for discussing “Sacred Cows”?

5.  Are there “Sacred Cows” that are preventing our school from supporting all students?


Steven Weber is the Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in North Carolina. For further reading by Steven 

Posted by: LeadUpNow on

Tags: , , ,