School Culture

  • The Social Side of Teaching — A New Framework For Improving The Profession

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    Teaching and learning are not primarily individual accomplishments but rather social endeavors that are best achieved and improved through trusting relationships and teamwork. Yet, most policies focus on improving  the individual capacities of teachers. What is to be gained from approaches that strike a balance between human and social capital? Watch the video.

  • A Diverse Teacher Force

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    There is concern that, as the U.S. population and student body is growing more racially and ethically diverse, the teacher workforce does not yet reflect this diversity. In fact, diversity should go beyond having more black and brown teachers in front of students. Diversity is also about equipping all teachers (regardless of race) to work with heterogeneous classrooms and diverse schools. Watch the video.

  • Fairness & Effectiveness in School Discipline

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    How do we teach discipline and maintain order, while protecting against the effects of persistent, unconscious biases? How do we ensure that schools are warm, welcoming, fair, and effective in the treatment of all students? Watch the video.

  • The Social Side Of Education Reform: A Research Primer

    This publication pulls together six important research essays from the social side of eduction blog series. Collectively, these essays make a compelling case that increasing the instructional capacity of schools requires looking beyond individual teacher effectiveness. 

  • The Social Side of Teaching Speaker Slides

    These slides summarize research by Susan Moore Johnson, Carrie R. Leana, and John P. Papay suggesting that teacher quality is as much as about the capacities of individuals as it is about the socio-cultural context where teachers and students do their work. 

  • How Relationships Matter In Educational Improvement

    This short video explains some shortcomings of mainstream education reform and offers an alternative framework to advance educational progress. Educational improvement is as much about the capacities of individuals as it is about their relationships and the broader social context.

  • Building a New Structure for School Leadership

    In this major research analysis, Richard Elmore explores the problems with the structure and leadership of public education, while explaining the dangers of public funding for private schools. He urges educators to study the schools whose leaders and best practice are succeeding in meeting high standards, including through the use of collaboration and distributed leadership. 

  • The Teaching Gap

    The Institute provided a grant to support the writing of this important book by James Stigler and James Hiebert, which explores the school system's failure to support a culture of professional development for teachers. It compares what's lacking in teacher training in this country with what's working in Japan, where teachers spend time working together to improve their skills.

  • Preparing Future Leaders For Building Relationships

    Our guest author today is Corrie Stone-Johnson, Associate Professor of Educational Administration at the University at Buffalo. She is Associate Editor of the journal Leadership and Policy in Schools published by Taylor & Francis. Her research in educational change and leadership examines the social contexts and organizational cultures within which teachers, leaders, and school support staff experience and enact change. 

    While many “types” of leadership models, such as instructional leadership, transformative leadership, or moral leadership, have demonstrated positive effects on student learning, one common feature of high-quality leadership is that principals lead not by themselves but “with and through others” (Hargreaves and Harris 2010, p. 36), taking responsibility not just for success and failure but for developing the relationships needed to foster such success. Robust empirical evidence indicates that strong relationships between teachers are a key lever for a variety of important outcomes, including successful and sustainable change, teacher commitment, and student achievement. Relationships matter because they help to create social capital, which Leana and Pil define as the “glue that holds a school together.” The noted benefits of teacher social capital include student achievement gains above and beyond those attributable to teacher experience and instructional ability (see here). In schools where teachers collaborate, students do better in math and reading (see here) and teachers both stay and improve at greater rates (see here).

    Social capital, or the value that inheres in the relationships among people (as opposed to the attributes of individuals), is developed in networks. Networks are important for the exchange of resources and they can be influenced by intentional strategies that build upon the existing relationships (or lack thereof) between and among district and school leaders —see here. There is no doubt that strong networks—to the extent that they generate trust and facilitate professional and organizational learning – can be a successful vehicle for student achievement and teacher retention. But—and this is very important—networks do not just happen; rather, they are the result of deliberate efforts undertaken by school administrators. Starratt (2004, 2005) argues that not only is a leader responsible to multiple stakeholders in the building, the district level and the community, he or she is also responsible for developing relationships with each of these stakeholders.

  • 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.

  • Fix Schools, Not Teachers

    This post was originally published at the Harvard Education Press blog.

    Both John and Jasmine are fifth-grade teachers. Jasmine has a lot of experience under her belt, has been recognized as an excellent educator and, as a content expert in math and science, her colleagues seek her out as a major resource at her school. John has been teaching math and science for two years. His job evaluations show room for improvement but he isn’t always sure how to get there. Due to life circumstances, they both switch schools the following year. John starts working at a school where faculty routinely work collaboratively, which is a rather new experience for him. In Jasmine’s new school, teachers are friendly but they work independently and don’t function as a learning community like in her old school.

    After a year John’s practice has improved considerably; he attributes much of it to the culture of his new school, which is clearly oriented toward professional learning. Jasmine’s instruction continues to be strong but she misses her old school, being sought out by her colleagues for advice, and the mutual learning that she felt resulted from those frequent professional exchanges.

    This story helps to illustrate the limitations of how teachers’ knowledge and skills are often viewed: as rather static and existing in a vacuum, unaffected by the contexts where teachers work. Increasing evidence suggests that understanding teaching and supporting its improvement requires a recognition that the context of teachers’ work, particularly its interpersonal dimension, matters a great deal. Teachers’ professional relations and interactions with colleagues and supervisors can constrain or support their learning and, consequently, that of their students.

  • Building A Professional Network Of Rural Educators From Scratch

    Our guest author today is Danette Parsley, Chief Program Officer at Education Northwest, where she leads initiatives like the Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement Network. To learn more about this work, check out Designing Rural School Improvement Networks: Aspirations and Actualities and Generating Opportunity and Prosperity: The Promise of Rural Education Collaboratives.

    Small rural schools draw from a deep well of assets to positively impact student experiences and outcomes. They tend to serve as central hubs within their communities, and their small size often facilitates close staff relationships, which in turn can enable moving innovative ideas into action. At the same time, rural schools face a number of challenges that differ from those of their urban and suburban counterparts.

    First, it’s extremely difficult to draw high-quality teachers to geographically disconnected, rural communities—and, when they do come, it’s hard to get them to stay. Second, it’s a challenge to connect teachers across remote and rural communities so they can share instructional practices and professional development. One way to address the challenges facing rural schools, while leveraging their inherent assets, is to establish professional networks of teacher leaders aimed at providing support that helps their colleagues succeed and encourages them to stay.

  • The Intervention That Works Across Settings With All Children

    Our guest authors today are Geoff Marietta, Executive Director, Pine Mountain Settlement School and Research Fellow at Berea College; Chad d'Entremont, Executive Director, Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy; and Emily E. Murphy, Director, Massachusetts Education Partnership (MEP) at the Rennie Center. Their work focuses on research and practice in labor-management-community collaboration.

    If you learned there was an intervention to improve student outcomes that worked for nearly all children across communities, what would stop you from using it? This intervention has closed learning gaps, both in urban communities serving predominantly low-income minority students and in isolated rural areas with large numbers of white and Native American students living in poverty. It has worked in suburban, urban, and rural settings with white, African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, and multi-racial students. That intervention is collaboration.

    In this post, we define collaboration, briefly discuss the growing evidence associating collaboration with student success, and describe some of our ongoing work, which focuses on designing tools to facilitate, formalize, and focus the hard but worthwhile and necessary responsibility of working together.

  • Getting Serious About Measuring Collaborative Teacher Practice

    Our guest author today is Nathan D. Jones, an assistant professor of special education at Boston University. His research focuses on teacher quality, teacher development, and school improvement. Dr. Jones previously worked as a middle school special education teacher in the Mississippi Delta. In this column, he introduces a new Albert Shanker Institute publication, which was written with colleagues Elizabeth Bettini and Mary Brownell.

    The current policy landscape presents a dilemma. Teacher evaluation has dominated recent state and local reform efforts, resulting in broad changes in teacher evaluation systems nationwide. The reforms have spawned countless research studies on whether emerging evaluation systems use measures that are reliable and valid, whether they result in changes in how teachers are rated, what happens to teachers who receive particularly high or low ratings, and whether the net results of these changes have had an effect on student learning.

    At the same time,  there has been increasing enthusiasm about the promise of teacher collaboration (see here and here), spurred in part by new empirical evidence linking teacher collaboration to student outcomes (see Goddard et al., 2007; Ronfeldt, 2015; Sun, Grissom, & Loeb, 2016). When teachers work together, such as when they jointly analyze student achievement data (Gallimore et al., 2009; Saunders, Gollenberg, & Gallimore, 2009) or when high-performing teachers are matched with low-performing peers (Papay, Taylor, Tyler, & Laski, 2016), students have shown substantially better growth on standardized tests.

    This new work adds to a long line of descriptive research on the importance of colleagues and other social aspects of the school organization.  Research has documented that informal relationships with colleagues play an important role in promoting positive teacher outcomes, such as planned and actual retention decisions (e.g., Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Pogodzisnki, Youngs, & Frank, 2013; Youngs, Pogodzinski, Grogan, & Perrone, 2015). Further, a number of initiatives aimed at improving teacher learning – e.g., professional learning communities (Giles & Hargreaves, 2006) and lesson study (Lewis, Perry, & Murrata, 2006) – rely on teachers planning instruction collaboratively.

  • The Hidden Power Of Our Social Worlds

    In July 2014 the Albert Shanker Institute began a blog series on the “social side” of education reform. The collection, which includes contributions from established and emerging scholars, attempts to shine a light on new research arguing for the centrality of the social dimension in educational improvement. This blog post serves as the preface of a new ASI publication featuring six of the most important blog posts from this series. The publication is now available for download here. ASI is holding a research and policy conference on this theme Friday April 8th.

    Whatever level of teacher human capital schools acquire through hiring can subsequently be developed through formal and informal professional interactions. As teachers join together to solve problems and learn from one another, the school’s instructional capacity becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

    This quote from Harvard professor Susan Moore Johnson (p. 20 of this volume) may make perfect sense to you. Our systems and organizations, however, are largely structured around individualistic values. As such, a primary goal is to optimize and reward performance at the individual level. So, while some of us (perhaps many of us) might agree that a team’s capacity can exceed the sum of individual members’ capacity, we generally have a difficult time translating that knowledge into action – e.g., rewarding individual behaviors that enhance team dynamics. Part of the problem is that there’s still a lot to learn about how teamwork and collaboration are properly measured.

    No matter how challenging, understanding the social dynamics that underpin our work organizations seems particularly timely given the interdependent nature of the modern workplace. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, “time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more” over the past two decades. At many companies, the article notes, “more than three quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.”

  • Caring School Leadership

    Our guest authors today are Mark A. Smylie, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Joseph Murphy, professor at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University, and Karen Seashore Louis, professor at the University of Minnesota.  Their research concerns school organization, leadership, and improvement.  This blog post is based on an article titled “Caring School Leadership: A Multi-Disciplinary, Cross-Occupational Model” which will be published later this year in the American Journal of Education.

    From our years of studying school leadership and reform, working with practicing educators, and participating in education policy development, we have come to the conclusion that caring lies at the heart of effective schooling and good school leadership.  In this time of intense academic pressures, accountability policies, and top-down approaches to reform, however, the concept of caring has been neglected, overshadowed by attention to more “objective”, task-oriented aspects of school organization and leadership (Cassidy & Bates, 2005; Richert, 1994 (pp.109-118); Rooney, 2015).  This, we contend, is a serious problem for both students and teachers.

    In this blog, we share some of our recent thinking about what caring school leadership is and why it is important. We draw on empirical and theoretical literatures from education and from disciplines outside education, particularly research on human service occupations such as health care, social services, and the ministry. And we present a model of caring school leadership. Our ideas were developed with principals in mind, but they apply to any educator engaged in school leadership work. We focus on students as the primary beneficiaries of caring. It should be noted that, as we argue for the importance of caring in schools, we do not mean to diminish the importance of academic achievement nor the need to care for staff and the community. We consider managing mutually-reinforcing combinations of caring support and academic press a central function of school leadership.

  • Collaboration Is The Way We Work, Not An "Activity"

    Our guest author today is Joseph Vincente, 10th Grade Chemistry Science Team Leader at the East Side Community High School in New York City. East Side is one of a growing network of 38 NY public high schools (mostly in NYC) with waivers that replace standardized state tests with performance based assessment. Vincente is interested in educational technology, sustainability education, and empowering young women and students of color to pursue STEM careers.

    So, 300 homework assignments checked, 200 email replied to, 100 quizzes graded, 50 more lab reports left from Monday still to read, 30 lessons executed, 10 revised notebook entries re-graded, 5 phone calls home and texts made to check-in with parents, 4 curriculum maps revised, 3 extra help sessions held before school, during lunch, and after school, 2 college bound pep-talks made, and 1 mediation between quarreling best friends conducted.

    Phew. 

    I take a deep breath and do a bit of mindless silent cleaning and organizing in my classroom to decompress. Another exhausting week in the life of a high school teacher comes to a close. Must be time for the weekend, right?  Well, almost... Friday afternoon at my school is when we do some of our most demanding but essential work as teachers.  You may be thinking it’s time for the dreaded weekly PD meetings or for some “collaboration”. Yes, that’s right; but, at East Side collaboration isn’t just an activity or behaving in a friendly, respectful, or cooperative way toward colleagues. Rather, collaboration underpins how we structure and conduct most of our work, how we serve students, and how we learn and grow as professionals. In the next few paragraphs, I describe some of East Side’s collaborative structures as well as the norms and conditions that support them.

  • Improving Teaching Through Collaboration

    Our guest author today is Matthew Ronfeldt, Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan School of Education. Ronfeldt seeks to understand how to improve teaching quality, particularly in schools and districts that serve historically marginalized student populations. His research sits at the intersection of educational practice and policy and focuses on teacher preparation, teacher retention, teacher induction, and the assessment of teachers and preparation programs.

    Learning to teach is an ongoing process. To be successful, then, schools must promote not only student learning but also teacher learning across their careers.* Embracing this notion, policymakers have called for the creation of school-based professional learning communities, including organizational structures that promote regular opportunities for teachers to collaborate with teams of colleagues** – also here and here. As the use of instructional teams becomes increasingly common, it is important to examine whether and how collaboration actually improves teaching and learning. The growing evidence, summarized below, suggests that it does. 

    For many decades, educational scholars have conducted qualitative case studies documenting the nature of collaboration among particular groups of teachers working together in departmental teams, reading groups, and other types of instructional teams. This body of work has demonstrated that the kinds and content of collaboration vary substantially across contexts, has shed light on the norms and structures that promote more promising collaboration, and has set the stage for today’s policy focus on “professional learning communities.” However, these studies rarely connected collaboration to teachers’ classroom performance. Thus, they provided little information on whether teachers actually got better at teaching as a result of their participation in collaboration.