Research: relationships trump ‘teacher excellence’

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.” Continue reading