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Julia Steiny: Terrific School Morale Improves Math Scores
Sometimes top-down reform is necessary, writes Julia Steiny, but that lasting, significant change depends on staff morale.
“I think if there is one thing I have learned, it’s that cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way overrated.”
– Michelle Rhee, former D.C. Schools Chancellor, now founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, at the Aspen Institute’s 2008 education summit.
These days, heavy-handed, top-down management reigns as the current ideology in educational leadership, especially in large urban districts. Get the upper hand and firmly grip the steering wheel. With military resolve, these superintendents consolidate and close schools, fire excess or incompetent staff, impose strict regulations to combat chaos.
Sometimes, education reform is a dirty job.
To be fair, when Michelle Rhee first became Chancellor, the D.C. schools were a disaster. Initially, anyway, they deserved her General Patton approach. She’s not a patient woman, and collaboration takes tons of time, at least at the beginning. She’s not talented at consensus building, not that it was important to her. Top-down superintendent-generals deploy middle managers to engineer each aspect of the education machine, to teacher-proof the school day, right down to the scripted curricula.
Dreary work, though I get that such tough moves are sometimes necessary.
But what about morale? Having gotten through the worst, where’s the appealing vision of staff uniting like a practiced sports team going for the big win? When’s the good part? Parents flock to charter schools, even academically mediocre ones, because they’re warm communities full of adults who feel good about their work. Good teachers will happily work together to meet district, state and national goals. But constantly being told what to do makes them crabby.
Now, at long last, comes hard research that says, in essence: good staff morale will improve your math scores. The top-down approach is murder on collegiality. And since math scores are now education’s Holy Grail, finally staff morale matters.
Dr. Carrie Leana is a professor in the business school at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert in organizational behavior.
She recently published “The Missing Link in School Reform,” in the Stanford Social Innovations Review. She discusses businessy ideas like “human capital” – individual capabilities – versus “social capital” – the capabilities and effects of a group or team on individuals. This distinction is critical to understanding how our current obsession with teacher effectiveness is way off track, with its hyper-focus on evaluating individual teachers.
To study teacher effectiveness, she and her colleagues surveyed huge samples of teachers in New York City, Pittsburgh and other large urban districts. They asked, among other things, whom teachers went to for teaching advice and support.
She writes, “What we found is that in most instances, teachers seek advice from one another. Teachers were 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. As one New York City teacher explained, ‘It’s dangerous to express vulnerability to experts or administrators because they will take your professional status away’ and replace it with scripted textbooks.’”
So, Leana reports, districts import outside experts to beef up the abilities of the individual teacher via coaching, mentoring and workshops. The new evaluation rhetoric about using “multiple measures” certainly doesn’t include measuring teachers’ skills as effective teammates. Nor do they take into account the resources and opportunities, or lack thereof, for them to make decisions as trusted community assets. (Devolving decision-making powers to the school community is known as site-based or school-based management. It’s the opposite of top-down.)
Leana goes on to say, “Most striking, students showed higher gains in math achievement when their teachers reported frequent conversations with their peers that centered on math, and when there was a feeling of trust or closeness among teachers. In other words, teacher social capital was a significant predictor of student achievement gains above and beyond teacher experience or ability in the classroom. The effects of teacher social capital on student performance were powerful.”
How could it be otherwise? Teams of teachers charged with common goals can form personal bonds, mentor one another and in the end, leverage each others’ success. Collegial teams naturally induct new teachers and serve as their mentors, instead importing outside experts. Pleasant working conditions lower staff turnover in all professions.
Furthermore, when we teach kids leadership skills, we emphatically preach that cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building are most likely to produce the best results. Kids and adults want to build and belong to caring communities. Does top-down management?
Leana says, “With collaboration, you are exposed to other teachers’ priorities and are better able to incorporate them to broaden your own approach in the classroom.”
Top-down systems, on the other hand, atomize teachers into “cogs,” resembling the factories after which schools were first modeled in the 19th century. Atomized teachers get easily pitted against one another. Of course teachers need individual evaluation. But only along side of the feedback of the team itself, among other helpful indicators.
Actually Thomas Payzant did an amazing job of empowering his schools’ staffs in Boston, when he was Superintendent between 1995-2006. As big systems go, Boston has notably high morale, and test scores that while not ideal, do support Massachusetts’ claim to have the best public schools in the nation.
It can be done. Organization affects how the staff feels. And morale matters hugely to the quality of the work.
Really? We needed research to tell us this?
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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