Friday, July 8, 2011

Collective Trust: Why Schools Can't Improve Without It

reviewed by Janet H. Chrispeels — June 13, 2011
Since the publication of the Coleman Report (1966), which documented the powerful negative effects of poverty on students’ educational outcomes, researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners have worked to identify factors that schools can influence. The urgency to understand school effects is still critical given the policy press to hold individual teachers accountable for student test results. In Collective Trust: Why Schools Can’t Improve Without It, Patrick Forsyth, Curt Adams, and Wayne Hoy bring together three decades of their research and the work of others to chronicle the importance of collective trust to student achievement. Teachers work alone in their classrooms and are responsible for student learning, yet Collective Trust shows that the environment in which teachers work affects what individual teachers can accomplish with their students. It also suggests that working collaboratively and cooperatively because they trust one another also contributes to student learning. Their findings indicate that more caution is needed before policy-makers rush to make standardized test results the cornerstone of teacher evaluation.

The richness of their conceptual models demonstrates the value of a sustained research trajectory. Through structural equation and hierarchical linear modeling these authors have teased out critical relationships among school properties, including collective trust, that promote student achievement. Two findings seem particularly relevant for educators and for future research. One finding is the need to foster an environment of trust in the entire school community because its existence is a strong predictor of school consequences for students. School-family relationships continually surface as a variable in school effectiveness studies. The findings of these authors, however, highlight that the core work in this arena may need to be less around implementing specific programs and more focused on building community cohesion especially in low-income communities. As we have found in our work, supporting parents -- especially low-income and immigrant parents who don’t understand how the system works and how they can play a role -- facilitated the development of social capital in the parent community (Bolivar & Chrispeels 2011). More importantly, as parents gained critical knowledge about the educational system, we found enhanced intellectual capital, which allowed them to take collective action to solve school and community problems. As Forsyth, Adams, and Hoy report, in communities where parents are often isolated and disenfranchised from schools, building community cohesion and trust is the precursor to being able to bridge schools and families in supporting student learning. Although schools cannot affect the levels of poverty in communities, they can reach out to parents and assist families from diverse communities in understanding school expectations and identifying shared responsibilities each has for children’s educational success.

The other finding, related to a general environment of trust but more closely linked to academic outcomes, is the significance of a sense of academic optimism to student outcomes. The construct of academic optimism brings together the three variables of collective efficacy: trust in parents and students, and academic press. Knowing the significance of these factors, the challenge for researchers, educators, and policy-makers is to focus on identifying the policies, practices, and school structures that promote and inhibit their development. Since their data suggest that these variables are interactive and in concert lead to academic optimism, a pressing need then exists to better understand how current policies may be supportive of one variable, but counter to enactment of another, and thus diminish the desired effect of improved student learning. For example, NCLB with a focus on achievement of all subgroups has enhanced academic press in schools. At the same time, when schools are labeled as underperforming, it undermines a sense of trust and efficacy, which in turn weakens the ultimate goal of improving achievement (Daly, 2009).

Furthermore, in some education, policy, and business circles, there is increasing attention to the need to develop students’ skills in critical thinking, problem solving, flexibility, adaptability, creativity, and multi-media communication. These skills are seen as crucial if students are to compete successfully for careers in a global society. An important issue raised by the findings from the authors is whether schools can instruct students in these ways if teachers themselves are not given flexibility and opportunities to collaborate to improve instruction. The answer overall seems to be probably not. The work of these scholars clearly shows that collective efficacy, collective trust, reciprocity, and cohesion are the pathways to social capital and social actions needed to improve outcomes for students.

The authors indicate, and certainly other research supports, that principals play a critical role in facilitating a trusting and collaborative culture that would allow teachers to use the skills students need to learn. The authors provide many valuable suggestions for practitioners and those preparing future leaders on actions they can take to build trust and cohesion in school and community. The discouraging news is that there are probably too few principals able to enact such a culture if they are not supported by district policies and practices. This attention to the embedded nature of schools in districts seems to be a missing dimension in this excellent book. It is understandable that the authors’ research focuses on the individual school, but others have documented the important role of district central offices in creating positive conditions, including building trusting relationship with schools (Chuon et al., 2008). Urban and urban fringe districts that serve significant proportions of low-income students and find themselves under threat of sanction in particular often find it difficult to foster openness and dialogue needed for fostering positive district and school cultures (Daly, 2009; Daly & Chrispeels, 2008; Daly & Finnigan, 2011). Exploring district/school trust relationships seems to be a fertile ground for additional research. I hope the authors may turn their considerable skills and wisdom to the role districts could play in helping schools enact the powerful model they have outlined that leads to improved student achievement.

Finally, by bringing together their research findings collected over three decades across varied contexts, the authors provide a valuable manual for doctoral students by showing their evolution in research methods for exploring complex phenomena. Particularly important is the expansion of their research from exploring trust relationships among teachers, between teachers and principals, and teachers’ trust of clients (students and parents) including parents’ and students’ perceptions of trust. The approaches used by the authors to refine and expand their surveys to include additional variables and different groups illustrate well how to bring in additional variables that can then lead to model building when the variables are analyzed using advanced statistical techniques. Schools are complex environments, but the authors of Collective Trust have helped to show how sustained and systematic research can shed light on some of the complexity and provide direction for implementing change that can lead to better learning outcomes for students.

Bolívar, J. M., & Chrispeels, J. H. (2011). Enhancing parent leadership through building social and intellectual capital. American Educational Research Journal48(1), 4-38.

Chuon, V., Gilkey, L., Gonzalez, M., Daly, A. J., & Chrispeels, J. (2008). The little district that could. Educational Administration Quarterly,44(2), 227-281.

Daly, A. J. (2009). Rigid response in an age of accountability: The potential of leadership and trust. Educational Administration Quarterly, 45(2), 168-216.

Daly, A. J., & Chrispeels, J. H. (2008). A question trust: Predictive conditions for adaptive and technical leadership in educational contexts. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 7(1), 30-63.
Daly, A. J., & Finnigan, K. (2011). The ebb and flow of social network ties between district leaders under high stakes accountability.American Educational Research Journal48, 39-79.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 13, 2011 ID Number: 16445, Date Accessed: 7/8/2011 3:02:04 PM

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