Let's face it. No one thinks American schools are knocking it out of the park. And like every American parent, I want to see improved quality. There's been a lot of talk about how to do that for years, but nothing seems to work. But now there's hope thanks to a recent study by the University of Pittsburgh.
These researchers investigated whether successful school reform meant prioritizing formal credentials, outside experts, and principals as top down managers ensuring teacher compliance with guidelines. Instead, they discovered that building teachers' social capital had the greatest impact on improving students' performance.
One of the study's authors, Carrie R. Leana, a professor of Organizations and Management at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that social capital is the quality of relationships among teachers. She says asking why some teachers are better than others misses the mark.
Instead, Leana says the better question to consider is "where do teachers go when they need inspiration, advice, or information"? Their meta-analysis of school reform studies found that where social capital was strong – where teachers had strong, active collaborative networks with other teachers – students performed better. Their research found that if a teacher's social capital was just one order better than the average teacher, that teacher's students' math scores increased by 5.7%. A separate study on teacher collaboration in a junior high school saw its students improve their math scores by 20% when their teachers actively participated in peer collaboration efforts.
More specifically, improving teachers' social capital had a greater impact on positive education outcomes than improving teachers' individual human capital. Leana wrote in an article on the research, "…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."
So How's It Going With Teacher Collaboration?
According to the most recent Met Life Teacher Survey (2012), more than 60% of teachers surveyed said their time and opportunity to collaborate with other teachers had either decreased or stayed the same from previous years. Schools that are testing the collaboration waters share some best practices:
- Providing an online space for collaboration: These online spaces serve two functions. First, they hold the formal knowledge teachers want to share with each other. This can include anything from lesson plans and original source material, to recordings of jam sessions talking about innovative ways to teach difficult concepts or how to address different kinds of discipline issues. Capturing this knowledge and making it available to other teachers on demand is crucial to creating a comprehensive social capital resource. Second, as a digital space, it enables a borderless community of teachers to contribute and collaborate.
- Keep the collaboration format loose: The social capital from collaboration is primarily a result of peer collaboration. Teachers collaborating with teachers. This isn't to say that bringing in other people in the schools, such as coaches and librarians, aren't also valuable resources. The challenge is administrators who over-structure "collaboration time." Forms, reports, circulation lists, scheduling. Enough. Alright, scheduling some brainstorming or other sharing sessions is probably a good idea. But you get the idea. Just like warnings not to over-structure kids' playtime, keeping the means and forms of collaboration loose can take things in directions no one can predict with more impactful results.
- Have clear goals: "Loose" doesn't mean directionless. So one collaboration effort could be to find ways that help students improve their focus. Another goal for a separate group of teachers could be to improve reading comprehension. Whether academic or soft skill, carve out specific collaboration tracks for different goals.
- Include family and other community resources as appropriate: Studies consistently show that engaged families make better students. A study looking at Chicago public schools identified five "essential supports" required for schools to improve, one of which is forging strong ties with families and the local community. This can include sharing resources and activities that parents can do at home with their children that reinforce what they're being taught in school. A collaboration effort with the community can pair up students with local mentors. Schools can use a tool such as Samepage to separate digital collaboration spaces for parents and community partners where they can share resources and communicate directly with other parents and organizations collaborating with the school.
Collaboration among teachers, and between teachers, parents, and local organizations, brings a new level of transparency and control for all these education stakeholders. It breaks down the barrier of the closed classroom door that has made teaching such an isolated activity. When they share their questions and teaching tricks with each other, teachers increase the social and human capital they have to offer students.