Traditionally businesses and schools have adopted the same strategy for improving the effectiveness of the workforce. The strategy is called "employee optimization" in which new workers are subjected to orientation workshops while others receive special training in areas of need. In schools the name for "employee optimization" is "professional development."
More recently, however, businesses, universities, and government institutions have changed their strategies for improving the quality of their work forces. New understandings about "personal productivity" drawn from the huge amounts of data that are now available to managers have driven the changes in strategy. The data generated by each employee makes it possible "to pick apart the small choices that all of us make...and figure out why some people are so much more effective than everyone else." (Duhigg, 2016)
What the analyses of these data has shown consistently is that improving the work of individual employees one by one is not sufficient; what is gained is not worth its costs.
Instead, the way to make individual employees more effective is to change how work is organized. In place of the model of the single worker in a cubicle is the model in which workers are active participants in formal or informal networks. The research from economists is quite clear that people working collaboratively in networks that are characterized by trust and reciprocity "do work more effectively than if it were done by individuals working alone." (Duhigg, 2016)
Why working either in a formally established network or in an informal one is a better way to work lies in the concept of social capital; that is, that the quality of the relationships among a group engaged in work adds value to how the work is done. Specifically, the relationship is strong when both "trust" and "reciprocity" are present. Trust means that workers feel safe with their colleagues and reciprocity means that information is readily shared, what economists call "information-flows." (Heckman, 2012)
Trust and reciprocity mean that information about the work, its goals, and how best to do it become the common property of all those who are engaged in the work.
The military has long understood the power of social capital and spends much time during training and deployment working on "unit cohesion" which is the military name for social capital.
Carrie R. Leana, a professor of organization and management has studied social capital in schools and describes it as having three dimensions: structural (the teachers share information with one another); relational (the personal relationships teachers have developed over the time together); and the cognitive (the degree to which teachers and administrators have developed a common set of goals, a shared vision for the organization and a shared sense of responsibility for carrying out those common goals). (Leana and Pil, 2006, p. 354) Leana's work focuses the informal networks spontaneously created by teachers who work in the same schools.
Her hypothesis is that if teachers share information, trust one another, and have similar beliefs about the purpose of schooling, their students should do better on measures of performance.
In a study published in 2006 of New York city elementary schools, she and her colleague Frits Pil found that the teachers who reported talking with their colleagues about math had students whose math achievement was higher than that of students whose teachers did not report such interactions.
In a 2011 study that included 1,200 New York teachers of grades kindergarten through fifth grade, teachers were asked to report on how competent they felt teaching the math topics in the curriculum. Leana found that in early grades the teachers were "particularly uncomfortable" with most of the topics in the curriculum and even 3 of 10 fifth grade teachers had little self-confidence when it came to math instruction.
The teachers were also asked about who they talked to when they needed advice. Perhaps not surprisingly the teachers turned neither to the building principal or to the school math coaches, but asked advice instead of their colleagues.
Those teachers who reported getting advice from peers had students who made higher gains in math achievement than teachers who didn't. "In other words, teacher social capital was a significant predictor of student achievement gains above and beyond teacher experience or ability in the classroom." (Leana, 2011)
The greater a school's social capital, the better its students did.
Leana quotes one teacher who described why it matters that teachers talk with other teachers about math: "we each set our own priorities...one...might emphasize students knowing all the facts...another might...[have a goal] of developing a love of learning...[but] a good teacher needs to help students develop all those things, but it's easy to get stuck in your own ideology if you are working alone. With collaboration, you are exposed to other teachers' priorities and better able to incorporate them to broaden your own approach to the classroom." (Leana, 2011)
Professor Leana concludes that the findings about the power of a school's social capital challenges our current approach of what she calls the "Teacher of the Year" model.
The assumption of this model is that if we could create a teacher of the year for every classroom we could improve student outcomes. But she points out that there is little evidence that the strategy has been effective. Instead, Leana points "toward a system that rewards mentoring and collaboration among teachers." (Leana, 2011)
Heckman, J. J. (2012). Social Capital Blog. Retrieved from https://socialcapital.wordpress.com/2012/04/
Leana, C. R., & Pil, K. F. (2006). Social Capital and Organizational Performance: Evidence from Urban Public Schools. Organizational Science, 17(3), 353-366. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Carrie_Leana
Leana, C. R. (2011). The Missing Link in School Reform. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved from http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_missing_link_in_school_reform
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.