How Relationships Drive School Improvement—And Actionable Data Foster Strong Relationships
Our guest authors today are Elaine Allensworth, Molly Gordon and Lucinda Fickel. Allensworth is Lewis-Sebring Director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research; Gordon is Senior Research Analyst at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research; and Fickel is Associate Director of Policy at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. Elaine Allensworth explores this topic further in Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Education Reform edited by Esther Quintero (Harvard Education Press: 2017).
As researchers at the UChicago Consortium on School Research, we believe in using data to support school improvement, such as data on students’ performance in school (attendance, grades, behavior, test scores), surveys of students and teachers on their school experiences. But data does nothing on its own. In the quarter-century that our organization has been conducting research on Chicago Public Schools, one factor has emerged time and time again as vital both for making good use of data, and the key element in school improvement: relationships.
Squishy and amorphous as it might initially sound, there is actually solid empirical grounding not only about the importance of relationships for student learning, but also about the organizational factors that foster strong relationships. In 2010, the Consortium published Organizing Schools for Improvement, which drew on a decade of administrative and survey data to examine a framework called the 5Essentials (Bryk et al. 2010). The book details findings that elementary/middle schools strong on the 5Essentials—strong leaders, professional capacity, parent-community ties, instructional guidance, and a student-centered learning climate—were highly likely to improve, while others showed little change or fell behind.
Relationships are the common thread undergirding all five Essentials. They are the hallmark of leadership, the antecedent to collaboration, the manifestation of involved families, the conduit for ambitious instruction, and the strongest predictor of a supportive environment. The quantifiable power of strong relationships is staggering. When teachers trust each other and that trust is exhibited in reflective dialogue, regular collaboration, and a sense of collective responsibility for student learning, their schools are nearly four times more likely to improve reading and math gains than are schools that have a weak level of trust. Trust among teachers is just one example; there are similar effects when teachers trust their principal and when students trust their teachers.
But when we unpack the concept of strong, trusting relationships, what do we really mean? What fosters relationships at the teacher level and at the student level? It’s not what you might expect. It’s easy to imagine how people might assume “positive teacher-student relationships” means being easygoing and likeable. But it turns out students have a far different set of criteria in mind and have very little interest in being buddies with their teachers. When we studied characteristics of high schools where students felt supported, we found students rarely mentioned emotional support or personal connections. Rather, students crave clear expectations and consistently communicated goals, regular monitoring and outreach, and a willingness on the teacher’s part to understand and address their individual struggles in school (Allensworth et al. 2014). They define a teacher that cares as one that checks in, notices when they need help, asks students if they have what they need, pushes them to do challenging work, and seeks understanding before punishing. Supportive teachers use their student data on grades and attendance to identify where they may need to modify their teaching and which students need support—they don’t get behind on grading or ignore student absences. They see low grades and absences as signals they need to reach out more actively. The trust that characterizes a strong relationship springs from the student understanding that the teacher is committed to helping him or her succeed in their class and in school.
Relationships between teachers and leaders come from a strikingly analogous foundation of goals, structures, monitoring, and support. In forthcoming research, we looked at characteristics of school leaders that are associated with school improvement. Among a subset of Chicago principals who are all highly rated as instructional leaders, why are some of their schools showing strong and improving gains while others do not? We found that teachers crave many of the same foundational conditions that students do: to know what they are working toward, to have structures that facilitate conversations about their progress based on data, and to have supports that help them improve.
Our initial findings highlight the importance of shared leadership—trusting more staff members with greater responsibilities, giving everyone skin in the game—for fostering strong relationships between leaders and teachers. One teacher described her relationship with her principal: “He’s one of those principals that trusts you. He values us as professionals, and I feel that he lets us make those decisions…I think that’s extremely important and makes us feel empowered.” In turn, teachers feel comfortable engaging in true professional learning communities, collaborating to help each other improve. In schools not seeing strong gains we have seen school leaders assume that providing time for teachers to collaborate is the extent of their relationship-building role—if you provide the meeting time, the relationships will come.
However, simply carving out time for collaboration is insufficient; the time has to be in service of clear goals, with a sense of collective effort, and an orientation toward improvement. It’s also critical that time for collaboration is structured around data—in particular, data that are clearly linked to the school’s goals for student success on metrics that matter, like grades and attendance. Monitoring student data is critical to keep conversations and effort focused on common goals, and to be able to see when shared work is making progress on those goals. It can also make difficult conversations less personal, keeping the conversation on goals instead of assigning blame. Through this lens, collaboration time can be focused and empowering (Stitziel-Pareja et al. forthcoming).
How can we grow the capacity of leaders and teachers to take this approach to building relationships? Principal preparation programs and state policies for licensure and certification could do more to provide much-needed training and supports—not only around how to foster collaboration and support shared leadership, but also around how to structure data-driven problem solving. School leaders also benefit from support from other leaders working on the same issues. Relationship-building across schools can be used to support leaders to support the teams within their schools. In Chicago, high school leadership teams that belong to the Network for College Success get together and look at each other’s data; that allows them to ask hard questions of each other and themselves about their schools’ practices (Allensworth 2013). It’s worth reflecting on what research has revealed about practices that help schools get relationships right—because they’re critical, and because they don’t happen by accident.
When this common thread of clear goals and structures and supports for data-driven collaboration permeates a school culture, the results can be dramatic. In fact, we have seen it move the needle for Chicago Public Schools on a grand scale. A decade ago, we drew the district’s attention to the finding that most students who fail to graduate fall off track in their ninth grade year. In large part, their decline in grades and attendance is attributable to the decline in support and monitoring that accompanies the shift from K-8 schools to high school (Rosenkranz et al. 2014).
Fueled by data on freshman year attendance and grades, many Chicago schools now dedicate time to collaborating on strategies to keep students on track for graduation. They regularly monitor student data and intervene by reaching out right away when students show signs of falling behind or disengaging, finding out why they are struggling, and then getting them the support they need (Roderick et al. 2014). That builds relationships; it shows students that their teachers care. It supplements teachers’ own observations of students, makes sure students don’t fall through the cracks, and that teachers who are having difficulty reaching some students get help from others. Schools with teams that examine student data to identify students who are struggling and devise shared strategies end up supporting each other in supporting students. Leaders provide vision, and keep school teams focused on that vision, while giving them the authority and support they need to develop shared strategies for meeting schoolwide goals. Those are the schools that see real progress. Collectively, they’re spurring progress districxt-wide and driving remarkable improvements in high school graduation and college outcomes (Allensworth et al. 2016; Healey et al. 2016).