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A New Focus On Social Capital In School Reform Efforts

** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

Our guest authors today are Carrie R. Leana, George H. Love Professor of Organizations and Management, Professor of Business Administration, Medicine, and Public and International Affairs, and Director of the Center for Health and Care Work, at the University of Pittsburgh, and Frits K. Pil, Professor of Business Administration at the Katz Graduate School of Business and research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center, at the University of Pittsburgh. This column is part of The Social Side of Reform Shanker Blog series.

Most current models of school reform focus on teacher accountability for student performance measured via standardized tests, “improved” curricula, and what economists label “human capital” – e.g., factors such as teacher experience, subject knowledge and pedagogical skills. But our research over many years in several large school districts suggests that if students are to show real and sustained learning, schools must also foster what sociologists label “social capital” – the value embedded in relations among teachers, and between teachers and school administrators. Social capital is the glue that holds a school together. It complements teacher skill, it enhances teachers’ individual classroom efforts, and it enables collective commitment to bring about school-wide change.

We are professors at a leading Business School who have conducted research in a broad array of settings, ranging from steel mills and auto plants to insurance offices, banks, and even nursing homes. We examine how formal and informal work practices enhance organizational learning and performance. What we have found over and over again is that, regardless of context, organizational success rarely stems from the latest technology or a few exemplary individuals.

Rather, it is derived from: systematic practices aimed at enhancing trust among employees; information sharing and openness about both problems and opportunities for improvement; and a collective sense of purpose. Over a decade ago, we were asked by a colleague in the School of Education about how our research might be applied to improving public schools. Since then, we’ve spent a good deal of time trying to answer that question through several large-scale research studies.

One thing we noticed immediately in our work with schools was the intense focus on the individual educator. This is prevalent not just among school reformers but in the larger culture as well, as evidenced in popular movies ranging from “To Sir with Love” in the 1960s to “Waiting for Superman” nearly fifty years later. And every self-respecting school district has a version of the “Teacher of the Year” award, which has now risen to state and even national levels of competition. In recent years, however, we have also witnessed a darker side to accountability, as districts around the country publicly shame teachers who do not fare well on the accountability scorecards.

Accountability models find their roots in the discipline of economics rather than education, and are exemplified in the value-added metrics used to evaluate teacher performance. These metrics assess annual increments in each student’s learning derived from standardized tests in subject areas like math and reading. These are then aggregated to arrive at a score for each teacher – her “value added” to students’ learning. Anyone with access to the internet can find teacher rankings based on these scores in many districts across the country.

Needless to say, many teachers, and the unions that represent them, argue that value-added measures of student performance fail to capture the complex factors that go into teaching and learning. At the same time, reliance on such metrics may undermine the collaboration, trust, and information exchange that make up social capital and, in this regard, do far more harm than good.

What is Social Capital?

Human capital encompasses a teacher’s cumulative abilities, knowledge, and skills developed through formal education and on-the-job experience. For many years, teacher human capital was assumed to be assured through a combination of formal education, certification, and on-going professional development. Building human capital was an individual endeavor undertaken by each teacher. Social capital, in comparison, is not a characteristic of the individual teacher but instead resides in the relationships among teachers, between teachers and principals, and even between teachers, parents and other key actors in the community. 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 experienced, or more innately gifted. A social capital perspective, conversely, would answer the same question by looking not just at what a teacher knows, but where she gets, vets and builds that knowledge. If she has a problem with a particular student, where does she go for information, advice, and sometimes just support? Who does she use to sound out her own ideas or assumptions about teaching? Who does she trust to confide gaps in her own understanding of the subject knowledge she is supposed to be imparting to students? Our research shows that when a teacher needs information or advice about how to do her job more effectively, she goes to other teachers.

Research Findings

In one of our research studies we followed over one thousand 4th and 5th grade teachers who were all using the same curriculum in a representative sample of 130 urban elementary schools. We examined one-year changes in their students’ achievement scores in mathematics (Pil and Leana 2009). That is, we looked at how much each student’s actual knowledge of mathematics advanced in the year they spent with a particular teacher. We also took into account factors like the economic need, attendance, and special education status of each child, since these affect not just the level of student learning, but also the rate of growth. We examined several facets of teacher human capital, including experience in the classroom and educational attainment, as predictors of student achievement gains. We also had all teachers respond to a series of real-life classroom scenarios that measured each teacher’s ability to instruct children in the logic of mathematics (Hill et al. 2004). Thus, our human capital indicators included teacher education, experience, and ability in the classroom. In addition to these more objective indicators, we asked teachers to report subjectively how prepared they felt to teach particular aspects of math that are part of an elementary school curriculum, such as fractions, proportions, and measurement.

We found that many elementary school teachers reported that they did not like to teach math and did not feel particularly confident teaching it, even though they were all required to do so on a daily basis. So we asked teachers to whom they spoke when they had questions or needed advice on teaching math. Do they go to other teachers, to the school principal, or to the coaches hired by the district specifically to help them to be better math teachers? And how much did they trust the source of the advice they received? What we found is that in most instances teachers sought advice from one another. They were about twice as likely to turn to their peers as to the “experts” designated by the school district, and four times more likely to seek information from one another than from their principals.

Most strikingly, students showed higher gains in math achievement when their teachers reported frequent conversations with their peers that centered on math, and when there was a feeling of trust and closeness between the teachers. Teacher social capital was a significant predictor of student achievement gains above and beyond teacher experience or ability in the classroom.  And the effects of teacher social capital on student performance were powerful. If a teacher’s social capital was just one standard deviation higher than the average, her students’ math scores increased by almost 6 percent compared to students of teachers with average social capital. And social capital was a more powerful predictor of student achievement gains than any of the measures of teacher knowledge, ability, or experience. But what happens when you combine human and social capital? What if teachers are skilled at their jobs, and also talk to one another frankly and on a regular basis about what they do in class?  Here we would expect even larger gains in student achievement, and our results confirmed this expectation. We found that the students of high-ability teachers out-performed those of low-ability teachers, as proponents of human capital approaches to school improvement would predict. More significant, however, were the interactions between human and social capital. Students whose teachers were both more able (high human capital) and had stronger ties with their peers (strong social capital) showed the highest gains in math achievement. Equally significant, we found that even low-ability teachers can perform as well as teachers of average ability if they have strong social capital.

Applying Research to Practice

What do these findings tell us about effective education policy? Foremost, they suggest that the current focus on teacher human capital – and the paper credentials and accountability metrics often associated with it – will not yield the qualified teaching staff so desperately needed in urban districts. Instead, policy makers must also invest in efforts 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 when teachers talk to and substantively engage their peers regarding the complex task of instructing students -- what works and what doesn’t -- student achievement rises significantly. Building social capital in schools is not easy or costless. It requires time and, typically, the infusion of additional teaching staff into the school. It requires a reorientation away from a “Teacher of the Year” model and toward a system that rewards mentoring and collaboration among teachers. It also asks school principals and district administrators to spend less time monitoring teachers and more time encouraging a climate of trust and information sharing among them.

The benefits of social capital are unequivocal, and unlike many other policy efforts, initiatives that foster it offer far more promise in terms of measurable gains for students. But how -- how exactly -- might social capital be encouraged where it's missing and be sustained where it already exists? We would like to hear from you. If you are a teacher, please provide us with feedback here. If you are a principal or work in any other administrative capacity, please use this link. Or if you would rather contact us directly, please do so at and/or

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