Teacher Collaboration Improves Student Performance
Last Friday, as I was walking into the office, I noticed Stanford University’s magazine, Social Innovation, lying on table in the reception area. An article featured on the cover entitled “The Missing Link in School Reform” by professor Carrie Leana, caught my attention. The article focuses on public schools and states that teachers who engage with one another “strengthen skills, competence, and a school’s overall social capital.” Social capital in this context encompasses the relationships between teachers that improve public schools. Leana’s article emphasizes that when there is high trust and frequent interaction among teachers in a school (i.e. when there is high social capital), student achievement scores improve.
The Focus Needs To Change
Leana asserts that there are several problems with the current school reforms. First, many school reform efforts today focus exclusively on teacher human capital, such as teacher experience, pedagogical skills, and subject knowledge, rather than teacher social capital. Second, many reform efforts center on the importance of the principal directing instructional practice, rather than the principal being an “external facilitator.” Third, most school reform is not founded on significant empirical research. Leana’s alternative proposal to the current school reform stresses the power of objective data and calls for more teacher collaboration as the answer to increasing student achievement.
The article presents findings from a large-scale project that took place in New York City public schools. Between 2005 and 2007, this project followed more than 1,000 fourth and fifth-grade teachers in a representative sample of 130 elementary schools across the city. The study examined one-year changes in student achievement scores in mathematics. Students who had high-ability teachers with much experience, good subject knowledge, and great pedagogical skills (i.e. teachers with strong human capital), as well as strong ties with their peers (strong social capital) showed the highest gains in math achievement. The study also revealed that low-ability teachers can perform as well as teachers of average ability if they have strong social capital, further emphasizing the important role social capital plays in enhancing student performance.
Applying the Research
So how do we apply this research to practice? First, according to Leana, policymakers must promote measures that increase collaboration and information-sharing amongst teachers. Leana states that in many schools such social capital is assumed to be an “unaffordable luxury or, worse, a sign of teacher weakness or inefficiency.” Yet this research implies that interacting with peers about the challenging task of teaching students is a key component of every teacher’s job and results in increased student achievement.
Second, the results challenge the power of the principal as the leader of teachers in school reform efforts. The study’s findings show that principals who spent their time on instructional activities and teacher interaction had no effect on teacher social capital or student achievement. However, principals who spent their time with people and organizations external to the school “delivered gains to teachers and students alike.”
The Challenge: Developing Social Capital
Developing social capital in schools is not easy or inexpensive, says Leana. It takes time and usually means adding more teachers to the school. It requires a focus away from a “Teacher of the Year” model and directs it towards a system that praises mentoring and collaboration among teachers. Social capital also means having principals and administrators play more external roles and engage more with outside supporters of teachers’ efforts. Trying to improve student achievement by implementing programs that exclusively focus on teacher human capital and principal leadership has failed for decades and Leana states this tactic should be abandoned. Moreover, it is worth investing in social capital because it offers a greater promise of measurable gains for students.
So teachers, ask yourselves: Who do you turn to when you need information or advice? Is observing someone else’s classroom encouraged at your school? And what things can your school do to increase teacher collaboration?