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For the past few months, we have been insisting, through this blog series, on the idea that education reform has a social dimension or level that often is overlooked in mainstream debate and policy. Under this broad theme, we've covered diverse issues ranging from how teachers' social capital can increase their human capital to how personnel churn can undermine reform efforts, or how too much individual talent can impede a team's overall performance. This collection of issues may prompt a number of important questions: What exactly is the "social side?" What are its key ideas? I would like to offer a few initial thoughts and share some resources that I've compiled.
The social side is primarily a lens that brings into focus a critical oversight in the public debate on educational reform and its policies: The idea that teaching and learning are not solo but rather social endeavors that are achieved in the context of the school organization, and within the districts where schools are embedded, through relationships and teamwork, rather than competition and a focus on individual prowess.
This social side perspective does a few things:
Our guest author today is Kenneth Frank, professor in Measurement and Quantitative Methods at the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education at Michigan State University.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in Michigan, but when I think of how to improve schools, I think about the “Magic Johnson effect." During his time at Michigan State, Earvin “Magic” Johnson scored an average of 17 points per game. Good, but many others have had higher averages. Yet, I would want Magic Johnson on my team because he made everyone around him better. Similarly, the best teachers may be those that make everyone around them better. This way of thinking is not currently the focus of many current educational reforms, which draw on individual competition and market metaphors.
So how can we leverage the Magic Johnson effect to make schools better? We have to think of ways that teachers can work together. This might be in terms of co-teaching, sharing materials, or taking the time to engage one another in honest professional dialogues. There is considerable evidence that teachers who can draw on the expertise of colleagues are better able to implement new practices. There is also evidence that when there is an atmosphere of trust teachers can engage in honest dialogues that can improve teaching practices and student achievement (e.g., Bryk and Schneider, 2002).
** Republished here in the Washington Post
Earlier this year, a paper by Roderick I. Swaab and colleagues received considerable media attention (e.g., see here, here, and here). The research questioned the widely shared belief that bringing together the most talented individuals always produces the best result. The authors looked at various types of sports (e.g., player characteristics and behavior, team performance etc.), and were able to demonstrate that there is such thing as “too much talent," and that having too many superstars can hurt overall team performance, at least when the sport requires cooperation among team members.
My immediate questions after reading the paper were: Do these findings generalize outside the world of sports and, if so, what might be the implications for education? To my surprise, I did not find much commentary or analysis addressing them. I am sure not everybody saw the paper, but I also wonder if this absence might have something to do with how teaching is generally viewed: More like baseball (i.e., a more individualistic team sport) than, say, like basketball. But in our social side of education reform series, we have been discussing a wealth of compelling research suggesting that teaching is not individualistic at all, and that schools thrive on trusting relationships and cooperation, rather than competition and individual prowess.
So, if teaching is indeed more like basketball than like baseball, what are the implications of this study for strategies and policies aimed at identifying, developing and supporting teaching quality?
Our "social side of education reform" series has emphasized that teaching is a cooperative endeavor, and as such is deeply influenced by the quality of a school's social environment -- i.e., trusting relationships, teamwork and cooperation. But what about learning? To what extent are dispositions such as motivation, persistence and engagement mediated by relationships and the social-relational context?
This is, of course, a very complex question, which can't be addressed comprehensively here. But I would like to discuss three papers that provide some important answers. In terms of our "social side" theme, the studies I will highlight suggest that efforts to improve learning should include and leverage social-relational processes, such as how learners perceive (and relate to) -- how they think they fit into -- their social contexts. Finally, this research, particularly the last paper, suggests that translating this knowledge into policy may be less about top down, prescriptive regulations and more about what Stanford psychologist Gregory M. Walton has called "wise interventions" -- i.e., small but precise strategies that target recursive processes (more below).
The first paper, by Lucas P. Butler and Gregory M. Walton (2013), describes the results of two experiments testing whether the perceived collaborative nature of an activity that was done individually would cause greater enjoyment of and persistence on that activity among preschoolers.
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 recently co-edited Using Research Evidence in Education: From the Schoolhouse Door to Capitol Hill (Springer, 2014), which explores the use and diffusion of different types of evidence across levels of the educational system.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances." William Shakespeare – As You Like It
All too often in districts under intense accountability pressures, exits and entrances happen frequently and repeatedly. One might conceptualize the work of district reform as a play in which actors are beginning to learn their lines and block places on the stage but, just as the play is underway, some key actors leave and others join, causing disruption to the performance. Now, if all of those who leave or join have smaller roles, the disruption may be less extreme, but if most are lead actors or the director or even the head of costume design, you’d likely have to push back opening night.
** 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.
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.
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.
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?
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).