The Social Side Of Capability: Improving Educational Performance By Attending To Teachers’ And School Leaders’ Interactions About Instruction

Our guest authors today are Matthew Shirrell, James P. Spillane, Megan Hopkins, and Tracy Sweet. Shirrell is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Administration in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University. Spillane is the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. Hopkins is Assistant Professor of Education Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Sweet is an Assistant Professor in the Measurement, Statistics and Evaluation program in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology at the University of Maryland. This piece is adapted from the authors’ chapter in Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Education Reform edited by Esther Quintero (Harvard Education Press, 2017).

The last two decades have witnessed numerous educational reforms focused on measuring the performance of teachers and school leaders. Although these reforms have produced a number of important insights, efforts to measure teacher and school leader performance have often overlooked the fact that performance is not simply an individual matter, but also a social one. Theory and research dating back to the last century suggest that individuals use their social relationships to access resources that can improve their capability and, in turn, their performance. Scholars refer to such real or potential resources accessed through relationships as “social capital,” and research in schools has demonstrated the importance of this social capital to a variety of key school processes and outcomes, such as instructional improvement and student performance.

We know that social relationships are the necessary building blocks of this social capital; we also know that social relationships within schools (as in other settings) don’t arise simply by chance. Over the last decade, we have studied the factors that predict social relationships both within and between schools by examining interactions about instruction among school and school system staff. As suggested by social capital theory, such interactions are important because they facilitate access to social resources such as advice and information. Thus, understanding the predictors of these interactions can help us determine what it might take to build social capital in our schools and school systems. In this post, we briefly highlight two major insights from our work; for more details, see our chapter in Teaching in Context.

The overall findings of our work suggest that, although some individual teacher and school leader characteristics, such as race or gender, predict the formation of relationships (or social ties) among school staff, the educational and physical infrastructures of schools and school systems are generally more important predictors of social interactions in the school workplace. In other words, holding formal (leadership) positions, participation in professional development, and grade-level assignments influence school staff interactions more strongly than individual attributes like gender, race, or years of experience. This is good news since such infrastructure-related aspects of schools are clearly more malleable than individual attributes such as one’s race.

One central finding of our work has been that the educational infrastructure of schools and school systems, as represented by formal (leadership) positions, participation in professional development, and grade-level assignments, influence school staff members’ interactions about instruction. Our analyses have consistently found that holding a formal leadership position—and a subject-specific leadership position in particular (e.g., a reading or math coach)—greatly increases the odds of school staff being sought out for instructional advice and information in that subject within their school. Teacher professional development, another aspect of the educational infrastructure, also matters for interactions. Teachers who report having participated in more professional development are more likely to be sought out for advice and information about instruction by their colleagues than teachers who receive less professional development. School staff say they seek out these colleagues not because of their positions or titles but because of their subject-specific expertise and specialized training.

Grade-level assignment is another aspect of the educational infrastructure associated with the formation of work-related ties between school staff. In our work, we have found that teachers teaching across multiple grade levels, such as those teaching special education or English as a second language, are less likely to provide advice or information to colleagues than teachers who teach a single grade level. Moreover, teachers who teach the same grade are much more likely to have an instructional tie with one another than are teachers who teach different grade levels. Our research explores a number of reasons why this may be the case: first, teachers in the same grade are required to teach the same standards and curricula, potentially encouraging discussion about instructional challenges. Second, teachers teaching the same grade also tend to be physically located close to one another in the school building. Third, and perhaps most importantly, teachers in the same grade are more likely to participate in the same organizational routines, such as grade-level meetings. All these factors increase their opportunities for work-related interactions and/or reduce barriers (e.g., time) to making connections with colleagues.

Our work also demonstrates that physical proximity in the workplace makes an important difference to teachers’ and school leaders’ interactions about instruction. In our analysis of physical proximity and work-related ties in one district we studied over four years, we found that as the physical distance between staff members’ workspaces (classrooms, offices) increased, the likelihood of an interaction between them decreased. Similarly, we found that the likelier two staff members were to cross paths in the school corridors, the more likely they were to form an instructional tie. These impacts were independent of a number of other factors associated with work-related interactions, including those outlined above (teaching multiple grades, having a leadership position, and teaching the same grade). In interviews, school staff told us that proximity affected their interactions both by decreasing the effort required to interact with colleagues and by increasing the likelihood of chance encounters.

What does this all mean for schools and school systems? First, some good news: our research suggests that school and system leaders can influence who talks to whom about instruction by strategically designing and redesigning their system- and school-level educational infrastructures, and by attending to where teachers are physically located in their buildings. In doing so, they can shape interactions about teaching and learning and potentially build social capital. One important takeaway is that administrators should take teachers’ instructional expertise into account when assigning them to grades and locations within their buildings, with the goal of ensuring that such  decisions facilitate the flow of advice and information of the most expert teachers to other staff members.

Although we have isolated various components of the school and school system educational infrastructure in our analysis, one practical challenge is that in actual schools these components do not function in isolation, and so should not be treated as such in practice or policy. Unfortunately, the dominant operating approach in U.S. education is often the silver bullet strategy, a decidedly un-systemic approach to creating a thoughtful educational infrastructure. Our work suggests that it is time to take a more comprehensive approach and build systems at the school and district levels that support meaningful interactions about instruction, the development of social capital, and the improvement of educational performance.