If you think the way to build a great education system is simply to hire more great teachers and school leaders – and get rid of those who aren’t great – read this article and think again.
Improving relationships and communication within schools holds more promise than focusing on the effectiveness of individual teachers and principals, writes University of Pittsburgh professor Carrie R. Leana, describing research that she and colleagues have conducted over the past decade.
“The results of our research challenge the prevailing centrality of the individual teacher and principal leadership in models of effective public education,” Leana writes in Stanford Social Innovation Review. “Instead, the results provide much support for the centrality of social capital — the relationships among teachers — for improving public schools.”
Leana’s findings contradict three widely accepted ideas: 1) “human capital,” individual teacher effectiveness, is key; 2) outsiders, whether state curriculum experts, leadership academy graduates or Teach for America recruits, know best; and 3) principals should be “instructional leaders” who coach teachers on how to teach.
“Unfortunately, all three beliefs are rooted more in conventional wisdom and political sloganeering than in strong empirical research,” she writes. They constitute an ideology of school reform. “And although this, like all ideology, may bring us comfort in the face of uncertainty and failure, it is unhelpful and perhaps dangerous if it leads us to pursue policies that will not bring about sustained success.”
Leana’s studies in several urban school districts find that individual teacher qualities are important, but teacher relationships are more important. And teachers are most effective when they turn to each other, not to principals and outside experts, for help and advice.
“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,” she writes. “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.”
As for principals, Leana found that schools do better when they spend less time coaching teachers and more time on “external relations,” such as meeting with parents, going to community meetings and interacting with civic groups.
Teachers working together to do what’s best for their students. Principals supporting them and creating space for doing the job well. It’s not the narrative of heroic intervention and radical change that dominates education policy debates. But when it comes to giving our kids the education they need, we should focus on what works, not on what gives us ideological comfort.