School Culture

  • A New Focus On Social Capital In School Reform Efforts

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    Our guest authors today are Carrie R. Leana, George H. Love Professor of Organizations and Management, Professor of Business Administration, Medicine, and Public and International Affairs, and Director of the Center for Health and Care Work, at the University of Pittsburgh, and Frits K. Pil, Professor of Business Administration at the Katz Graduate School of Business and research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center, at the University of Pittsburgh. This column is part of The Social Side of Reform Shanker Blog series.

    Most current models of school reform focus on teacher accountability for student performance measured via standardized tests, “improved” curricula, and what economists label “human capital” – e.g., factors such as teacher experience, subject knowledge and pedagogical skills. But our research over many years in several large school districts suggests that if students are to show real and sustained learning, schools must also foster what sociologists label “social capital” – the value embedded in relations among teachers, and between teachers and school administrators. Social capital is the glue that holds a school together. It complements teacher skill, it enhances teachers’ individual classroom efforts, and it enables collective commitment to bring about school-wide change.

    We are professors at a leading Business School who have conducted research in a broad array of settings, ranging from steel mills and auto plants to insurance offices, banks, and even nursing homes. We examine how formal and informal work practices enhance organizational learning and performance. What we have found over and over again is that, regardless of context, organizational success rarely stems from the latest technology or a few exemplary individuals.

  • Regular Public And Charter Schools: Is A Different Conversation Possible?

    Uplifting Leadership, Andrew Hargreaves' new book with coauthors Alan Boyle and Alma Harris, is based on a seven-year international study, and illustrates how leaders from diverse organizations were able to lift up their teams by harnessing and balancing qualities that we often view as opposites, such as dreaming and action, creativity and discipline, measurement and meaningfulness, and so on.

    Chapter three, Collaboration With Competition, was particularly interesting to me and relevant to our series, "The Social Side of Reform." In that series, we've been highlighting research that emphasizes the value of collaboration and considers extreme competition to be counterproductive. But, is that always the case? Can collaboration and competition live under the same roof and, in combination, promote systemic improvement? Could, for example, different types of schools serving (or competing for) the same students work in cooperative ways for the greater good of their communities?

    Hargreaves and colleagues believe that establishing this environment is difficult but possible, and that it has already happened in some places. In fact, Al Shanker was one of the first proponents of a model that bears some similarity. In this post, I highlight some ideas and illustrations from Uplifting Leadership and tie them to Shanker's own vision of how charter schools, conceived as idea incubators and, eventually, as innovations within the public school system, could potentially lift all students and the entire system, from the bottom up, one group of teachers at a time.

  • Why Teachers And Researchers Should Work Together For Improvement

    Our guest author today is Bill Penuel, professor of educational psychology and learning sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. He leads the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice, which investigates how school and district leaders use research in decision-making. This is the first of two posts on research-practice partnerships; both are part of The Social Side of Education Reform series.

    Policymakers are asking a lot of public school teachers these days, especially when it comes to the shifts in teaching and assessment required to implement new, ambitious standards for student learning. Teachers want and need more time and support to make these shifts. A big question is: What kinds of support and guidance can educational research and researchers provide?

    Unfortunately, that question is not easy to answer. Most educational researchers spend much of their time answering questions that are of more interest to other researchers than to practitioners.  Even if researchers did focus on questions of interest to practitioners, teachers and teacher leaders need answers more quickly than researchers can provide them. And when researchers and practitioners do try to work together on problems of practice, it takes a while for them to get on the same page about what those problems are and how to solve them. It’s almost as if researchers and practitioners occupy two different cultural worlds.

  • No Teacher Is An Island: The Role Of Social Relations In Teacher Evaluation

    Our guest authors today are Alan J. Daly, Professor and Chair of Education Studies at the University of California San Diego, and Kara S. Finnigan, Associate Professor at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester. Daly and Finnigan recently co-edited Using Research Evidence in Education: From the Schoolhouse Door to Capitol Hill (Springer, 2014).

    Teacher evaluation is a hotly contested topic, with vigorous debate happening around issues of testing, measurement, and what is considered ‘important’ in terms of student learning, not to mention the potential high stakes decisions that may be made as a result of these assessments.  At its best, this discussion has reinvigorated a national dialogue around teaching practice and research; at its worst it has polarized and entrenched stakeholder groups into rigid camps. How is it we can avoid the calcification of opinion and continue a constructive dialogue around this important and complex issue?

    One way, as we suggest here, is to continue to discuss alternatives around teacher evaluation, and to be thoughtful about the role of social interactions in student outcomes, particularly as it relates to the current conversation around valued added models. It is in this spirit that we ask: Is there a 'social side' to a teacher's ability to add value to their students' growth and, if so, what are the implications for current teacher evaluation models?

  • Social Capital Matters As Much As Human Capital – A Message To Skeptics

    In recent posts (here and here), we have been arguing that social capital -- social relations and the resources that can be accessed through them (e.g., support, knowledge) -- is an enormously important component of educational improvement. In fact, I have suggested that understanding and promoting social capital in schools may be as promising as focusing on personnel (or human capital) policies such as teacher evaluation, compensation and so on. 

    My sense is that many teachers and principals support this argument, but I am also very interested in making the case to those who may disagree. I doubt very many people would disagree with the idea that relationships matter, but perhaps there are more than a few skeptics when it comes to how much they matter, and especially to whether or not social capital can be as powerful and practical a policy lever as human capital.

    In other words, there are, most likely, those who view social capital as something that cannot really be leveraged cost-effectively with policy intervention toward any significant impact, in no small part because it focuses on promoting things that already happen and/or that cannot be mandated. For example, teachers already spend time together and cannot/should not be required to do so more often, at least not to an extent that would make a difference for student outcomes (although this could be said of almost any policy).

  • Not All Discipline Disparities May Be The Result Of Implicit Bias

    Over the past few months, we have heard a lot about discipline disparities by race/ethnicity and gender -- disparities that begin in the earliest years of schooling. According to the Civil Rights Data Collection Project by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, "black students represent 18% of preschool enrollment, but 42% of preschool students suspended once and 48% of students suspended more than once." It also found that "boys receive more than three out of four out-of-school preschool suspensions."

    This focus on student discipline disparities has also drawn attention to the research on implicit bias -- the idea that we all harbor unconscious attitudes that tend to favor individuals from some groups (whites, males, those judged to be good looking, etc.), and that disadvantage people from other groups (people of color, women, ethnic minorities, etc.). The concept of implicit bias suggests that good or bad behavior is often in the eye of the beholder, and disparities in disciplinary outcomes (e.g., suspensions and expulsions) may be influenced by unconscious stereotypes.

    Part of me is very glad that we are finally having this conversation. Acknowledging the existence and consequences of subtle, implicit forms of prejudice is an important and necessary first step toward mitigating their effects and advancing toward fairness -- see my implicit bias series here. But it sometimes seems that the discipline and the implicit bias conversations are one and the same, and this concerns me for two reasons.

  • Do Students Learn More When Their Teachers Work Together?

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    Debates about how to improve educational outcomes for students often involve two 'camps': Those who focus on the impact of "in-school factors" on student achievement; and those who focus on "out-of-school factors." There are many in-school factors discussed but improving the quality of individual teachers (or teachers' human capital) is almost always touted as the main strategy for school improvement. Out-of-school factors are also numerous but proponents of this view tend toward addressing broad systemic problems such as poverty and inequality.

    Social capital -- the idea that relationships have value, that social ties provide access to important resources like knowledge and support, and that a group's performance can often exceed that of the sum of its members -- is something that rarely makes it into the conversation. But why does social capital matter?

    Research suggests that teachers' social capital may be just as important to student learning as their human capital. In fact, some studies indicate that if school improvement policies addressed teachers' human and social capital simultaneously, they would go a long way toward mitigating the effects of poverty on student outcomes. Sounds good, right? The problem is: Current policy does not resemble this approach. Researchers, commentators and practitioners have shown and lamented that many of the strategies leveraged to increase teachers' human capital often do so at the expense of eroding social capital in our schools. In other words, these approaches are moving us one step forward and two steps back.

  • The Importance Of Relationships In Educational Reform

    * Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    Our guest authors today are Kara S. Finnigan, Associate Professor at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester, and Alan J. Daly, Professor and Chair of Education Studies at the University of California San Diego. Finnigan and Daly have recently co-edited Using Research Evidence in Education: From the Schoolhouse Door to Capitol Hill (Springer, 2014).

    There are many reforms out there; what if these ideas are not working as well as they could because educators are simply not communicating or building meaningful relationships with each other or maybe the conditions in which they do their work do not support productive interactions?  These are important issues to understand and our research, some of which we highlight in this post, underscores the importance of the relational element in reform.  To further explore the social side of the change equation, we draw on social network research as a way to highlight the importance of relationships as conduits through which valued resources flow and can bring about system-wide change.

    A few years ago Arne Duncan noted that "[NCLB] has created a thousand ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed.”  We think that may have to do with the over reliance on technical fixes, prescriptive approaches and the scant attention to the context -- particularly the social context -- in which reforms are implemented.  But what would things look like if we took a more relational approach to educational improvement?

  • Why A Diverse Teaching Force?

    This is the third in a series of three posts about implicit bias. Here are the first and second parts.

    The arguments for increasing the representation of people of color in teaching are often based around two broad rationales. First is the idea that, in a diverse, democratic society, teachers of color can serve as important role models for all children. The second idea is that teachers of color are particularly well suited to teaching students of color because they possess an inherent understanding of the culture and backgrounds of these learners.

    I can think of at least two additional pro-diversity arguments that are relevant here, not only for schools but also for the broader landscape of work organizations. First, diversity can increase everyone's sense of "fitting in" in a given setting; social belonging is a basic human need that can in turn predict a wide range of favorable outcomes. Second, diversity can do more than offer role models. Repeated exposure to male pre-K teachers or black, female high school principals can challenge and expand our thinking about who is or is not  suited to certain tasks – and even the nature of those jobs and the skills required to do them. This is important to the much broader goal of fairness and equality because it contributes to disrupting strong stereotypic associations present in our culture that too often limit opportunities for people of color and women.

    As I noted the first two posts of my implicit bias series (here and here), intergroup contact is one of the best researched means of reducing explicit (here and here) and unconscious (racial, gender) bias (here and here). This post explains why and how faculty diversity can act as an institution-level "de-biasing" policy or strategy.

  • What Is Implicit Bias, And How Might It Affect Teachers And Students? (Part II - Solutions)

    This is the second in a series of three posts about implicit bias. Here are the first and third parts.

    In my first post on this topic, I argued that teachers are better positioned than, say, doctors or judges, to learn specifics about the individuals they serve. This strategy – called “individuating” – has proven to be effective in reducing implicit biases (related to race, gender, ethnicity, etc.). This post offers additional thoughts on how we might support teachers' orientation to get to know their students. Second, I discuss additional strategies that have been proven to be effective in mitigating the effects of implicit biases.

    A couple of weeks ago, a colleague asked a great question during the Shanker Institute’s Good Schools Seminar on "Creating Safe and Supportive Schools." His question was motivated by a presentation on implicit bias by Kirwan Institute director Sharon Davies. The question was: Wouldn’t you expect more conscious, systematic decision-making (and fewer automatic, snap judgments) from teachers who, after all, see their students everyday and get to know them well? (See here, minute 50:55.)

    As I related in the previous post, individuating (or learning about the particulars of a person, his/her interests, skills, family, etc.) can be a very effective "de-biasing" tool.* So, how might we leverage and support teachers' natural inclination to get to know students well? How might a potential de-biasing intervention build on this feature of teachers' work?