Turning Conflict Into Trust Improves Schools And Student Learning

Our guest author today is Greg Anrig, vice president of policy and programs at The Century Foundation and author of Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schools.

In recent years, a number of studies (discussed below; also see here and here) have shown that effective public schools are built on strong collaborative relationships, including those between administrators and teachers. These findings have helped to accelerate a movement toward constructing such partnerships in public schools across the U.S. However, the growing research and expanding innovations aimed at nurturing collaboration have largely been neglected by both mainstream media and the policy community.

Studies that explore the question of what makes successful schools work never find a silver bullet, but they do consistently pinpoint commonalities in how those schools operate. The University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research produced the most compelling research of this type, published in a book called Organizing Schools for Improvement. The consortium gathered demographic and test data, and conducted extensive surveys of stakeholders, in more than 400 Chicago elementary schools from 1990 to 2005. That treasure trove of information enabled the consortium to identify with a high degree of confidence the organizational characteristics and practices associated with schools that produced above-average improvement in student outcomes.

The most crucial finding was that the most effective schools, based on test score improvement over time after controlling for demographic factors, had developed an unusually high degree of "relational trust" among their administrators, teachers, and parents.

Five organizational features contributed to this success:

  • A coherent instructional guidance system, in which curriculum and assessment were coordinated within and across grades with meaningful teacher involvement;
  • An effective system to improve professional capacity by providing ongoing support and guidance for teachers, including opening teachers' classroom work for examination by colleagues and external consultants;
  • Strong ties among school personnel, parents, and community service providers, with an integrated support network for students;
  • A student-centered learning climate that identified and responded to problems individual students were experiencing;
  • Leadership focused on cultivating teachers, parents, and community members so that they became invested in sharing responsibility for the school's improvement.

These five features tended to reinforce one another; a significant weakness in any of them could threaten progress. Schools with strong rankings on all five criteria were 10 times more likely to improve than schools that were weak in the majority of the areas. The consortium also found that principal leadership was central to initiating and sustaining those organizational changes. Effective principals recognized that improvement must be grounded in continuing efforts to build trust across the school community.

Another ambitious investigation, conducted by the National Center for Educational Achievement, sent teams of researchers to 26 public schools in five states that served a high percentage of low-income students, and whose students had made significant gains on math and science exams over a three-year period. That study's findings were remarkably similar to those of the Chicago consortium. Administrators and teachers in the effective schools worked closely together in developing and selecting instructional materials, assessments, and learning strategies. Teachers had time set aside each week to work with one another to improve instructional practices. Administrators and teachers carefully monitored test data to identify where students and teachers needed additional support. School personnel engaged in regular, extensive communication with parents to coordinate support for students. In many cases, administrators and teachers also worked closely with local community groups and service providers, broadening the network of trained professionals helping children.

Without question, fundamentally transforming school culture in impoverished urban districts is a herculean task, especially where teachers’ unions and administrators have been locked in mortal combat for years. In fact, many of the districts where collaboration has taken hold arose after relations reached rock bottom, awakening both sides to the need to try something radically different.

No matter how hard though, what is especially exciting is that when trust is developed at this level, entire urban school districts end up pursuing and sustaining these collaborative practices, and subsequently exhibiting improved student outcomes. Examples where this has been the case include Cincinnati, Ohio; Springfield and Lawrence, Mass.; New Haven and Meriden, Conn.; Montgomery County and Baltimore, Md.; Hillsborough County, Florida; Rockford, Ill.; St. Louis, Mo.; St. Paul, Minn.; Nashua, N.H.; Union City, N.J.; and the Capistrano and ABC School Districts in California.

Even after making progress on rebuilding relations, the propensity of politicized school boards to fire superintendents can risk undermining the gains. Both Hillsborough and Montgomery Counties recently ousted chiefs who had been widely recognized for successfully implementing collaborative practices -- see here and here, respectively.

Despite setbacks, there are remarkable transformations taking place. In recent months, for example, teams of administrators and teachers from another 25 cities have been meeting regularly, at gatherings convened by regional chapters of the Teacher Union Reform Network, to pursue more collaborative practices. In addition to sharing lessons learned from their experiences at those sessions, the network has begun developing case studies to document how extremely difficult change can actually happen, and ultimately demonstrate improved results for students. A new documentary on Peoria High School in Illinois, if widely viewed, has the potential to lead to widespread emulation, if only it could receive the same promotional support as did “Waiting for Superman.” 

Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may be shifting toward endorsing collaboration between labor and management. A 2012 U.S. Department of Education white paper argued that “tough-minded collaboration … will lead to more effective practices and a more sustainable path to elevating education than the ups and downs of adversarial relationships that have long characterized labor–management relations.”

Although the Gates Foundation has provided support for the TURN initiative, and the Ford Foundation has supported related collaborative efforts like community schools and more and better learning time, far more resources are needed to broaden and deepen the extent to which these kinds of changes can take hold. That includes much more substantial support from the federal government. Now that we are finally learning what is working district-wide in some American cities, it is time to attach booster rockets to an approach that can take the nation’s students to a much higher level.