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Teacher Collaboration: The Missing Link in School Reform?

The current education reform ethos has centered on improving individual teachers' effectiveness and accountability—through merit-pay programs and the use of value-added performance data, for example. But in an interesting article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Carrie R. Leana, a professor of organizations and management at the University of Pittsburgh, argues that reformers have overlooked another, perhaps even more important, factor in school improvement: the level of interaction and collaboration among teachers within a school, or what she terms a school's "social capital." When teachers have strong ties with their peers, Leana says, student achievement invariably goes up.

Here, for example, she reviews the findings of a study she and her colleagues conducted in New York City schools from 2005 to 2007:

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. And the effects of teacher social capital on student performance were powerful. If a teacher's social capital was just one standard deviation higher than the average, her students' math scores increased by 5.7 percent.

Significantly, Leana has also found that—pace all the recent anti-tenure rhetoric—teachers with more experience at a particular grade level are likely to produce greater student learning gains than their less practiced peers. This might partly be because, in addition to gaining depth of knowledge, experienced teachers have had more time and need to invest in relationships in their schools, she reasons.

Along similar lines, Leana says that principals are more successful in generating achievement gains when they concentrate on providing resources to help teachers to build connections than when they are busy personally mentoring and monitoring teachers.

So what are the implications for education policy and reform? Leana points, rather unfashionably, to the importance of supporting "teacher stability" and creating systems that reward "mentoring and collaboration among teachers," perhaps over and above the achievements of the individual superstars.

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