Critical Role of Teacher Culture

The Importance of Teacher and School Culture:
Social Capitol and School Change

“Three beliefs -the power of teacher capitol, the values of outsiders, and the centrality of the principal in instructional practice- form the implicit and explicit core of many reform efforts today. Unfortunately, all three beliefs are rooted more in conventional wisdom and political sloganeering than in strong empirical research” argues Carrie R. Leana in the Fall, 2011 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review. Instead, Leana and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh argue that “social capitol” or how teachers treat and interact with each other in the school setting, will contribute far more to lasting change and improvement.

To be clear, explains Leana, “I am not opposed to recognizing the contributions of outstanding teachers or to holding bad teachers accountable for poor performance. But I believe in the power of objective data.” Leana provides the following example, “Social capital… is not a characteristic of the individual teacher but instead 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?”

The implications of the study not only suggest the many complications of assessing “merit” and attaching incentives, but also the need to comprehend the dimensions of school culture at the deepest levels. “This is not an area that is easily understood or influenced”, suggests Wayne Ogden of Education Resource Consortium, “many leaders do not have these skills, do not even consider such strategies, and almost all schools are handicapped these days by severe limits on after-school planning and problem-solving time for teachers working in small groups. We’ve thought this stuff was fluff and that a focus on testing would cut through the performance issues, but experience and studies such as this are proving otherwise.”

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