This is an important article in the Shanker Blog by two scholars at the University of Pittsburgh. They 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.

Leanna and Pil write:

“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.

“Rather, it is derived from: systematic practices aimed at enhancing trust among employees; information sharing and openness about both problems and opportunities for improvement; and a collective sense of purpose. Over a decade ago, we were asked by a colleague in the School of Education about how our research might be applied to improving public schools. Since then, we’ve spent a good deal of time trying to answer that question through several large-scale research studies.

“One thing we noticed immediately in our work with schools was the intense focus on the individual educator. This is prevalent not just among school reformers but in the larger culture as well, as evidenced in popular movies ranging from “To Sir with Love” in the 1960s to “Waiting for Superman” nearly fifty years later. And every self-respecting school district has a version of the “Teacher of the Year” award, which has now risen to state and even national levels of competition. In recent years, however, we have also witnessed a darker side to accountability, as districts around the country publicly shame teachers who do not fare well on the accountability scorecards.

“Accountability models find their roots in the discipline of economics rather than education, and are exemplified in the value-added metrics used to evaluate teacher performance. These metrics assess annual increments in each student’s learning derived from standardized tests in subject areas like math and reading. These are then aggregated to arrive at a score for each teacher – her “value added” to students’ learning. Anyone with access to the internet can find teacher rankings based on these scores in many districts across the country.

“Needless to say, many teachers, and the unions that represent them, argue that value-added measures of student performance fail to capture the complex factors that go into teaching and learning. At the same time, reliance on such metrics may undermine the collaboration, trust, and information exchange that make up social capital and, in this regard, do far more harm than good.”

They go on to explain why current “reforms” actually are counter to the coloration and trust that are most needed and most successful.

They add:

“What do these findings tell us about effective education policy? Foremost, they suggest that the current focus on teacher human capital – and the paper credentials and accountability metrics often associated with it – will not yield the qualified teaching staff so desperately needed in urban districts. Instead, policy makers must also invest in efforts that enhance collaboration and information sharing among teachers. In many schools, such social capital is assumed to be an unaffordable luxury or, worse, a sign of teacher weakness or inefficiency. Yet our research suggests that when teachers talk to and substantively engage their peers regarding the complex task of instructing students — what works and what doesn’t — student achievement rises significantly.

“Building social capital in schools is not easy or costless. It requires time and, typically, the infusion of additional teaching staff into the school. It requires a reorientation away from a “Teacher of the Year” model and toward a system that rewards mentoring and collaboration among teachers. It also asks school principals and district administrators to spend less time monitoring teachers and more time encouraging a climate of trust and information sharing among them. The benefits of social capital are unequivocal, and unlike many other policy efforts, initiatives that foster it offer far more promise in terms of measurable gains for students.”

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