Social Capital and the Best Route to Reform

Building social capital in schools is not easy or inexpensive. It requires time and typically the infusion of additional teaching staff into the school.

In trying to improve American public schools, educators, policymakers, and philanthropists are overselling the role of the highly skilled individual teacher and undervaluing the benefits that come from teacher collaborations, writes Carrie R. Leana at the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Carrie R. Leana is the George H. Love Professor of Organizations and Management at the University of Pittsburgh.

President Barack Obama and others have expressed concern about American students’ deficiencies in math and science, writes Leana. Fourth-graders’ math proficiency actually declined in the United States between 2007 and 2009.

Performance gets even worse as students move on to secondary school; only 26 percent of US high school students are proficient in math.

“This disappointing performance has led educators, policymakers, and parents to search for ways to improve student achievement in schools.”

Leana suggests that value-added modeling is one example of a larger approach to improving public schools that is aimed at enhancing what economists label “human capital”—factors such as teacher experience, subject knowledge, and pedagogical skills.

“Many also believe that a key to improving public schools lies in bringing in people outside the school, or even the school district, to solve problems. These outsiders often take the form of curriculum consultants and pedagogy “experts” from university schools of education or of teacher-to-teacher “coaches” supplied by the district office.”

Leana shows that a natural extension of the belief in the power of outsiders is the notion that teacher tenure is the enemy of effective public education:

“Governors of Florida, Indiana, Nevada, New Jersey, and Tennessee all have introduced measures calling for the dismantling of teacher tenure in their states’ public schools. The assumption being that the ranks of senior teachers are plagued by incompetence and that the less experienced would do better in their place.”

In many reform efforts, the principal is cast as the “instructional leader” who is responsible for developing and managing pedagogical practice. In many of the current principal training programs, principals are taught how to manage curriculum, monitor lesson plans, evaluate teachers, and hold them accountable for student progress, writes Leana.

Leana writes that these three beliefs—in the power of teacher human capital, the value of outsiders, and the centrality of the principal in instructional practice—form the implicit or explicit core of many reform efforts today.

“Teacher competence does affect student learning. Outsiders can bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm to tired systems. And principals do have a role in reform efforts. At the same time, our findings strongly suggest that in trying to improve public schools we are overselling the role of human capital and innovation from the top, while greatly undervaluing the benefits of social capital and stability at the bottom.”

Leana claims that teachers are almost twice as likely to turn to their peers as to the experts designated by the school district, and four times more likely to seek advice from one another than from the principal.

“Further, when the relationships among teachers in a school are characterized by high trust and frequent interaction—that is, when social capital is strong—student achievement scores improve.”

Teachers are not the only school professionals who have been the focus of reformers. Principals, too, have been in the spotlight with much of the recent activity centered on training them to serve as the school leader of pedagogical change.

“When principals spent more time building external social capital, the quality of instruction in the school was higher and students’ scores on standardized tests in both reading and math were higher. Conversely, principals spending more of their time mentoring and monitoring teachers had no effect on teacher social capital or student achievement. The more effective principals were those who defined their roles as facilitators of teacher success rather than instructional leaders. They provided teachers with the resources they needed to build social capital—time, space, and staffing—to make the informal and formal connections possible.”

After decades of failed programs aimed at improving student achievement through teacher human capital and principal leadership, such investments in social capital are cheap by comparison and offer far more promise of measurable gains for students, writes Leana.

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September 2nd, 2011

Staff Reporter

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