The Missing Link in School Reform

In an article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, author Carrie R. Leana argues that education reforms have yet to identify a major component to boosting student achievement:  teacher collaboration.  She calls these patterns of teacher interaction “social capital,” the quantity and quality of which can measurably affect school improvement.

Leana asserts that the three more common areas of focus in school improvement—human capital (teacher knowledge and effectiveness), the value of outsiders (consultants and pedagogy experts), and the centrality of principals as leaders in instructional practice—are “rooted more in conventional wisdom and political sloganeering than in strong empirical research.” Together they constitute what Leana calls the ideology of school reform.  Leana does not dismiss these factors as key to school improvement, however, the research she and her colleagues have done “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.”
To illustrate the difference between human capital and social capital, Leana offers the following scenario:

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? Who does she use to sound out her own ideas or assumptions about teaching? Who does she confide in about the gaps in her understanding of her subject knowledge?

In her research, Leana found that teachers do not usually turn to experts to get information or advice on how to do her job, and even less frequently turn to their principals.  Additionally, when relationships among teachers have high levels of trust and interaction (i.e., when social capital is strong), student achievement scores improve.

After conducting research at 130 elementary schools in NYC public school system from 2005-2007, Leana comes to the following conclusions about current policy objectives and initiatives:

1. The current focus on building teacher human capital will not yield the qualified teaching staff so desperately needed in urban districts.  Instead, policies must also invest in measures that enhance collaboration, rather than viewing such teamwork as a sign of teacher weakness or inefficiency.

2. There is not enough emphasis on the value of teacher stability.  There are direct, positive relationships between student achievement gains in mathematics and teacher tenure at grade level and teacher social capital.  Therefore, current efforts to undercut teacher stability “may come at a very steep cost.”

3. Principals spending their time on instructional activities and teacher interaction had no effect on teacher social capital or student achievement.  Principals who spent more of their time collaborating with people and organizations outside the school delivered gains to teachers and students alike.

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