Teacher Collaboration Builds Social Capital and Improves Student Learning.

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In previous entries I have drawn attention to the importance of social capital as an importance scaffold for improving student learning in high performing schools. Social capital at its most basic is a measure of the quality of relationships that exist within a school community and how these relationships support a schools capacity to improve student learning. The OECD report into 21st Century Learning found that variance in student learning outcomes was as great and in many cases greater between classes within schools as it was between schools or between systems. My experience and the experience of schools such as Lansdowne Crescent Primary School in Tasmania Australia strongly support the contention that collaboration between teachers in a major influence on both reducing the variance and improving the learning outcomes for all students in a learning community. Research strongly supports the link the assertion that collaboration with colleagues around student instruction is an essential part of every teacher’s job and results in rising student achievement. These are the findings Carrie R. Leana, a professor of organizations and management at the University of Pittsburgh, writes about in the fall 2011 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

In her piece, The Missing Link in School Reform, she writes that many so-called reformers argue for increasing human capital — factors such as teacher experience, subject knowledge, and pedagogical skills — in schools. “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.” These beliefs are not research-based, however.

The positive effects of social capital have been demonstrated by empirical research. What’s social capital? Leana says that social capital

resides in the relationships among teachers. In response to the question ‘Why are some teachers better than others?’ a human capital perspective would answer that some teachers are just better trained, more gifted, or more motivated. A social capital perspective would answer the same question by looking not just at what a teacher knows, but also where she gets that knowledge. If she has a problem with a particular student, where does the teacher go for information and advice? Who does she use to sound out her own ideas or assumptions about teaching? Who does she confide in about the gaps in her understanding of her subject knowledge?

In a study of more than 1,200 kindergarten through fifth grade teachers in New York City Leana and her co-workers found the following.

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.

Linette Branham, CEA’s director of policy and professional practice, says that CEA has been advocating for years for professional learning for teachers that fits this model.

“When teachers work together with their colleagues to look at student learning data, use it to determine student learning needs, and then determine their own learning needs based on what students need, they design programs that really help improve instruction. That’s social capital at its finest.”

Professional development training that CEA carried out for local associations last year is based on this collaborative approach.

“It’s great to see more research supporting the importance of social capital,” said Branham. “We hope this research draws more attention to the importance of teacher collaboration around student instruction.”

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