The “Missing Link in School Reform”

This Stanford Social Innovation Review article may turn out to make a big impact on the education change conversation. It endorses several aspects of the National Equity Project’s general approach, especially our emphasis on developing relationships, trust, and collaboration among staff as equally important as technical improvements, although there is no mention of equity.  In a way, we bring the equity/social justice lens to this kind of integrated, socio-culturally aware approach to education systems change. 

And we hold as a value that people are capable of and need to make their own change – the article questions the value of outside experts when they are not focused on building teacher capacity to collaborate effectively and leadership capacity to support and enhance that collaboration. Excerpts follow.

In trying to improve American public schools, educators, policymakers, and philanthropists are overselling the role of the highly skilled individual teacher and undervaluing the benefits that come from teacher collaborations.

These three beliefs—in the power of teacher human capital, the value of outsiders, and the centrality of the principal in instructional practice—form the implicit or explicit core of many reform efforts today. Unfortunately, all three beliefs are rooted more in conventional wisdom and political sloganeering than in strong empirical research.

Teacher competence does affect student learning. Outsiders can bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm to tired systems. And principals do have a role in reform efforts. At the same time, our findings strongly suggest that in trying to improve public schools we are overselling the role of human capital and innovation from the top, while greatly undervaluing the benefits of social capital and stability at the bottom.

Social capital…resides in the relationships among teachers. In response to the question “Why are some teachers better than others?” a human capital perspective would answer that some teachers are just better trained, more gifted, or more motivated. A social capital perspective would answer the same question by looking not just at what a teacher knows, but also where she gets that knowledge. If she has a problem with a particular student, where does the teacher go for information and advice?

When a teacher needs information or advice about how to do her job more effectively, she goes to other teachers. She turns far less frequently to the experts and is even less likely to talk to her principal. Further, when the relationships among teachers in a school are characterized by high trust and frequent interaction—that is, when social capital is strong—student achievement scores improve.

In presenting these results to …teachers, the results immediately resonate and many express relief that their informal work networks are finally being recognized as a valuable resource. When presenting them to school administrators, however, I have faced more skepticism and some unwillingness to let go of long-held beliefs about the need to monitor teachers and set strict guidelines for practice in the classroom.

What do these findings tell us about effective education policy? First, they suggest that the current focus on building teacher human capital—and the paper credentials often associated with it—will not yield the qualified teaching staff so desperately needed in urban districts. Instead, policymakers must also invest in measures that enhance collaboration and information sharing among teachers. In many schools, such social capital is assumed to be an unaffordable luxury or, worse, a sign of teacher weakness or inefficiency. Yet our research suggests that talking to peers about the complex task of instructing students is an integral part of every teacher’s job and results in rising student achievement.

Building social capital in schools is not easy or inexpensive. It requires time and typically the infusion of additional teaching staff into the school. It requires a reorientation … toward a system that rewards mentoring and collaboration among teachers. It also asks school principals and district administrators to become more external in their focus—spending less time looking over teachers’ shoulders and more time on collaboration with potential outside supporters of teachers’ efforts. But after decades of failed programs aimed at improving student achievement through teacher human capital and principal leadership, such investments in social capital are cheap by comparison and offer far more promise of measurable gains for students.


This entry was posted in Changing the Discourse, education reform, Effective Teaching, Relationships, school coaching, school improvement and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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