School Culture

  • New School Climate Tool Facilitates Early Intervention On Social-Emotional Issues: Bullying And Suicide Prevention

    Our guest author today is Dr. Alvin Larson, director of research and evaluation at Meriden Public Schools, a district that serves about 8,900 students in Meriden, CT. Dr. Larson holds a B.A. in Sociology, M. Ed., M.S. in Educational Research and a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology. The intervention described below was made possible with support from Meriden's community, leadership and education professionals.

    For the most part, students' social-emotional concerns start small; if left untreated, though, they can become severe and difficult to manage. Inappropriate behaviors are not only harmful to the student who exhibits them; they can also serve to increase the social bruising of his/her peers and can be detrimental to the climate of the entire school. The problem is that many of these bruises are not directly observable – or not until they become scars. School psychologists and counselors are familiar with bruised students who act out overtly, but some research suggests that 4.3% of our students carry social-emotional scars of which counselors are unaware (Larson, AERA 2014). To develop a more preventative approach, foster pro-social attitudes and a positive school climate, we need to be able to identify and support the students with hidden bruises as well as intervene with pre-bullies early in their school careers.

    Since 2011, Connecticut’s Local Education Agencies (LEAs) have been required to purchase or develop a student school climate survey. The rationale for this is that anti-social attitudes and a negative school climate are associated with lower academic achievement, current behavior problems, as well as future criminal behaviors (DeLisi et al 2013; Hawkins et al 2000) and suicide ideation (King et al 2001). There are hundreds of anonymous school climate surveys, but none of them was designed to provide the kind of information that we need to help individual students.

  • Will Value-Added Reinforce The Walls Of The Egg-Crate School?

    Our guest author today is Susan Moore Johnson, Jerome T. Murphy Research Professor in Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Johnson directs the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, which examines how best to recruit, develop, and retain a strong teaching force.

    Academic scholars are often dismayed when policymakers pass laws that disregard or misinterpret their research findings. The use of value-added methods (VAMS) in education policy is a case in point.

    About a decade ago, researchers reported that teachers are the most important school-level factor in students’ learning, and that that their effectiveness varies widely within schools (McCaffrey, Koretz, Lockwood, & Hamilton 2004; Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain 2005; Rockoff 2004). Many policymakers interpreted these findings to mean that teacher quality rests with the individual rather than the school and that, because some teachers are more effective than others, schools should concentrate on increasing their number of effective teachers.

    Based on these assumptions, proponents of VAMS began to argue that schools could be improved substantially if they would only dismiss teachers with low VAMS ratings and replace them with teachers who have average or higher ratings (Hanushek 2009). Although panels of scholars warned against using VAMS to make high-stakes decisions because of their statistical limitations (American Statistical Association, 2014; National Research Council & National Academy of Education, 2010), policymakers in many states and districts moved quickly to do just that, requiring that VAMS scores be used as a substantial component in teacher evaluation.

  • Starting Closest To Home: The Importance Of Developing Teachers’ Understanding Of The Social Contexts Of Their Classrooms

    Our guest author today is John Lane, a former teacher and instructional coach who is now working as a post-doctoral researcher at Michigan State University on a project that investigates the impact of social networks and mentorship on the mathematics instructional practices of beginning teachers. 

    It may seem foolish now, but there was a time in this country when policymakers believed that reforms were self-executing. Legislatures and educational bureaucrats would articulate the terms of the policies and their vision for improving schools, and teachers and others close to schools would translate these visions into practice. In the meantime, over the past fifty years or so, researchers have been able to better understand the vast gulf between reformers’ ideals and teachers’ practice. In short, we have come to understand that improving teacher’s practice is more difficult than anyone imagined.

    Policymakers, however, seem not to have gotten this message, or to have gotten it only partially. For the most part, they still follow a familiar script that reads that teachers either lack the skill or the will to enact reforms, or both. Consequently, reforms typically ratchet up accountability while also including some provision for teacher learning.

    In what follows, I focus on the content of this learning and what it might take to achieve it. First, I discuss why teacher learning is complex and often challenging. Next, I discuss how teacher learning is typically organized, and the substance of what teachers currently learn. Specifically, I contend that in teachers’ typical learning opportunities, reforms are reduced to a set of strategies that “work” across settings, and in which the contexts of teaching become an unwanted entanglement. In this post, I argue that teachers would benefit from opportunities to learn about the social dynamics of classrooms -- it is those dynamics, after all, that affect their own reform efforts and teacher practice more broadly. I then offer some ideas about how teachers might be able to accomplish this.

  • Developing Workplaces Where Teachers Stay, Improve, And Succeed

    ** Republished here in the Washington Post

    Our guest authors today are Matthew A. Kraft and John P. Papay. Kraft is an Assistant Professor of Education at Brown University. Papay is an Assistant Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University. In 2015, they received the American Educational Research Association Palmer O. Johnson Memorial Award for the research discussed in this essay. 

    When you study education policy, the inevitable question about what you do for a living always gets the conversation going. Controversies over teachers unions, charter schools, and standardized testing provide plenty of fodder for lively debates. People often are eager to share their own experiences about individual teachers who profoundly shaped their lives or were less than inspiring.

    A large body of research confirms this common experience – teachers have large effects on students’ learning, and some teachers are far more effective than others. What is largely absent in these conversations, and in the scholarly literature, is a recognition of how these teachers are also supported or constrained by the organizational contexts in which they teach.

    The absence of an organizational perspective on teacher effectiveness leads to narrow dinner conversations and misinformed policy. We tend to ascribe teachers’ career decisions to the students they teach rather than the conditions in which they work. We treat teachers as if their effectiveness is mostly fixed, always portable, and independent of school context. As a result, we rarely complement personnel reforms with organizational reforms that could benefit both teachers and students.

  • Trust: The Foundation Of Student Achievement

    When sharing with me the results of some tests, my doctor once said, "You are a scientist, you know a single piece of data can't provide all the answers or suffice to make a diagnosis. We can't look at a single number in isolation, we need to look at all results in combination." Was my doctor suggesting that I ignore that piece of information we had? No. Was my doctor deemphasizing the result? No. He simply said that we needed additional evidence to make informed decisions. This is, of course, correct.

    In education, however, it is frequently implied or even stated directly that the bottom line when it comes to school performance is student test scores, whereas any other outcomes, such as cooperation between staff or a supportive learning environment, are ultimately "soft" and, at best, of secondary importance. This test-based, individual-focused position is viewed as serious, rigorous, and data driven. Deviation from it -- e.g., equal emphasis on additional, systemic aspects of schools and the people in them -- is sometimes derided as an evidence-free mindset. Now, granted, few people are “purely” in one camp or the other. Most probably see themselves as pragmatists, and, as such, somewhere in between: Test scores are probably not all that matters, but since the rest seems so difficult to measure, we might as well focus on "hard data" and hope for the best.

    Why this narrow focus on individual measures such as student test scores or teacher quality? I am sure there are many reasons but one is probably lack of familiarity with the growing research showing that we must go beyond the individual teacher and student and examine the social-organizational aspects of schools, which are associated (most likely causally) with student achievement. In other words, all the factors skeptics and pragmatists might think are a distraction and/or a luxury, are actually relevant for the one thing we all care about: Student achievement. Moreover, increasing focus on these factors might actually help us understand what’s really important: Not simply whether testing results went up or down, but why or why not.

  • Teaching = Thinking + Relationship

    Our guest author today is Bryan Mascio, who taught for over ten years in New Hampshire, primarily working with students who had been unsuccessful in traditional school settings. Bryan is now a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he conducts research on the cognitive aspects of teaching, and works with schools to support teachers in improving relationships with their students.

    Before I became a teacher I worked as a caretaker for a wide variety of animals. Transitioning from one profession to the other was quite instructive. When I trained dogs, for example, it was straightforward: When the dog sat on command I would give him praise and a treat. After enough training, anyone else could give the command and the dog would perform just as well and as predictably. When I worked with students, on the other hand, it was far more complex – we worked together in a relationship, with give and take as they learned and grew.  Regrettably, when I look at how we train teachers today, it reminds me more of my first profession than my second.

    Teaching is far more than a mechanized set of actions. Our most masterful teachers aren’t just following scripts or using pre-packaged curricula. They are tailoring lessons, making professional judgments, and forging deep bonds with students – all of which is far more difficult to see or understand.  Teaching is a cognitive skill that has human relationships at its center. Unfortunately, we typically don't view teaching this way in the United States. As a result, we usually don't prepare teachers like (or for) this, we don’t evaluate them like this, and we don’t even study them like this. In our public discussion of education, we typically frame teaching as a collection of behaviors, and teachers as though they are simply technicians.  This doesn’t just create a demoralized workforce; it also leaves students in the care of well-meaning and hard-working teachers who are, nonetheless, largely unable to meet their students' individual needs – due either to lack of preparation for, or mandates that prevent, meeting them.

  • Is The Social Side Of Education Touchy Feely?

    That's right, measuring social and organizational aspects of schools is just... well, "touchy feely." We all intuitively grasp that social relations are important in our work environments, that having mentors on the job can make a world of difference, that knowing how to work with colleagues matters to the quality of the end product, that innovation and improvement relies on the sharing of ideas, that having a good relationship with supervisors influences both engagement and performance, and so on.

    I could go on, but I don't have to; we all just know these things. But is there hard evidence, other than common sense and our personal experiences? Behaviors such as collaboration and interaction or qualities like trust are difficult to quantify. In the end, is it possible that they are just 'soft' and that, even if they’re important (and they are), they just don't belong in policy conversations?

    Wrong.

    In this post, I review three distinct methodological approaches that researchers have used to understand social-organizational aspects of schools. Specifically, I selected studies that examine the relationship between aspects of teachers' social-organizational environments and their students' achievement growth. I focus both on the methods and on the substantive findings. This is because I think some basic sense of how researchers look at complex constructs like trust or collegiality can deepen our understanding of this work and lead us to embrace its implications for policy and practice more fully.

  • Broadening The Educational Capability Conversation: Leveraging The Social Dimension

    Our guest author today is James P. Spillane, Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. Spillane has published extensively on issues of education policy, policy implementation, school reform, and school leadership. His most recent books are Distributed Leadership in Practice and Diagnosis and Design for School Improvement. Learn more about Spillane's work at www.distributedleadership.org.

    We are well into a new century – 15 years and counting! Yet, we continue to fixate on last century notions about human capability. Specifically, we still dwell mostly on the individual teacher or school leader, on investing in and developing their individual human capital so as to improve their productivity and in turn generating higher returns to the individual, school organization, school system, and society. The empirical evidence has established educational professionals' human capital is undoubtedly important for school and school-system productivity.* At the same time, however, by fixating primarily on human capital, we miss or undermine the significance and potential of social capital.

    Social capital captures the idea that capability (and by extension productivity) is not simply an individual matter but also a social matter. In other words, in addition to individual capability, there are (often untapped) resources that reside in the relations among people within organizations, systems, or society – a social capability. These social relations can be a source of and a channel for crucial resources such as trust, information, expertise, materials, security, obligation, incentives, and so on - see Bryk & Schneider 2002; Coburn 2001; Daly, Moolenaar, Bolivar, & Burke 2010; Frank, Zhao, & Borman 2004; Frank, Zhao, Penuel, Ellefson, & Porter 2011; Louis, Marks, & Kruse 1996; Moolenaar, Karsten, Sleegers, & Daly 2014. In a given system or organization, social capital is much more than the aggregate of members' human capital.

  • 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.

  • Relationships Matter: Putting It All Together

    About six months ago, we published a post entitled The Importance Of Relationships In Educational Reform, by Kara S. Finnigan and Alan J. Daly. This post was the first of an ongoing series on the social side of education. In addition to Finnigan and Daly, scholars such as Carrie R. Leana and Frits K. Pil, Kenneth Frank, and William Penuel have joined this effort by writing about their research and sharing their perspective.

    If there is one take away about the social side approach, it is the idea that relationships matter in education. Teaching and learning are not solo but rather social endeavors and, as such, they are best achieved by working together. The social side perspective: (1) shifts the focus from the individual to the broader context in which individuals operate; (2) highlights the importance of interdependencies at all levels of the system – e.g., among teachers within a school, leaders across a district, schools and the community; and (3) recognizes that crucial resources (e.g., information, advice, support) are exchanged through interpersonal relationships.

    In my previous post I shared a list of resources (e.g., videos, news articles, papers etc.) that I compiled, and which I will periodically update, on the research underpinning the social side lens. Today I want to share two additional materials: First, a short video that I created, which summarizes, in a visual way, the ideas outlined above; second, an interactive image to help you explore our collection of content on this topic.