School & District Management

‘Trusting’ School Community Linked to Student Gains

By Catherine Gewertz — October 16, 2002 7 min read
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Two researchers contend that they have found the “missing ingredient” without which schools stand little chance of improving: a strong bond of trust among members of the school community.

In Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement, University of Chicago professors Anthony S. Bryk and Barbara Schneider express their support for improving the quality of instruction, measuring student performance, and reshaping education governance. But they argue that without trusting relationships among teachers, principals, parents, and students, such efforts are likely doomed to fail.

“We have identified a missing ingredient in the reform recipes: the nature of social practice among adults in school communities and how this is mobilized for sustained school improvement,” the authors write in the book, published in August by the New York City-based Russell Sage Foundation.

“We view the need to develop relational trust as an essential complement both to governance efforts that focus on bringing new incentives to bear on improving practice and to instructional reforms that seek to deepen the technical capacities of school professionals.”

Others have written about the impact that strong, positive relationships can have on the academic life of a school. But Mr. Bryk, a professor of sociology and urban education, and Ms. Schneider, a professor of sociology and human development, go a step further by providing data that correlate a school’s trust levels with its students’ academic improvement.

The authors caution policymakers not to lose sight of the importance of trust in the drive to deliver results. “From a policy perspective,” they write, “we constantly need to ask whether any new initiative is likely to promote relational trust within school communities or undermine it.”

That message was warmly received by researchers whose work emphasizes inclusion of the social and emotional facets of children’s learning.

“With all the emphasis on high-stakes testing, standards, and curriculum, often there is a sense that there isn’t time to do this, to build trusting relationships,” said Pamela Seigle, a school psychologist affiliated with Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., who developed a “classroom meeting” curriculum in which students and teachers share important ideas.

“What happens if we don’t make time for this is that, ultimately, good things don’t happen in the classroom.”

The Function of Trust

Mr. Bryk said in an interview that he and Ms. Schneider “stumbled into” their work on relational trust. They set out in the early 1990s to explore the dynamics of reform unfolding in Chicago schools as a 1988 law that profoundly decentralized school governance was taking effect. As they talked with staff members, they were struck by how often trust was mentioned as a critical factor in a school’s successful operation.

Adjusting the focus of their inquiry, the two sociologists drew on a cross-disciplinary group of writings to form their theory of relational trust. Of particular significance were the writings of the sociologist James S. Coleman, who had detailed the way people’s relationships to one another build “social capital,” which forms a resource for solving problems.

Also influential was the work of Harvard University professor Robert Putnam, who outlined how citizens’ willingness to form social ties affects the functioning of core democratic institutions, and the economist Francis Fukuyama, who wrote about the ways that greater trust can facilitate more effective workplace organization.

Mr. Bryk and Ms. Schneider also drew on social research in group theory, which explores the ways that long-term social ties can contribute to people’s identity and motivate their actions.

The researchers defined types of trust, such as that which derives from obligations outlined in a contract, or the kind people share based on a belief in the moral authority of an institution, such as a religious school. The type of trust at work in public schools they dubbed “relational trust,” a complex dynamic in which parties depend on one another, and on a shared vision, for success.

In analyzing how trust might function in Chicago schools, the researchers reviewed interviews they and their assistants conducted during three years of field work in 12 Chicago elementary schools. They also used the results of several teacher surveys administered in 1991, 1994, and 1997, and combined that feedback with student- performance data that had been assembled by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Mr. Bryk is the founding director of the consortium.

They found that the bedrock of trust rested on four supports: respect, competence, integrity, and personal regard for others. Again and again, they found that teachers and principals who had one another’s trust, and the trust of parents, had exhibited strong and consistent signs of all four.

A vivid example is offered in one of the book’s three case studies. The portrait that emerges of Holiday Elementary School is of a school whose defining qualities are caring deeply for students and being on a mission to help them. The principal and teachers had earned one another’s trust by demonstrating repeatedly that they were skilled at their jobs, acted on the basis of deep conviction, and were willing to go the extra mile to do what was best for children. As a result, the staff had the trust and devotion of parents as well.

Impact on Achievement

Mr. Bryk and Ms. Schneider then set out to compare the performance of schools with high levels of trust with that of schools where relations were not as strong.

They found that schools performing in the top quartile on standardized tests were more often schools with high levels of trust than those performing in the bottom quartile. They also examined the 100 schools that had made the greatest and least annual gains on standardized tests between 1991 and 1996, and matched those results against the teacher- survey data on trusting relationships.

They found that schools reporting strong trust links in 1994 were three times more likely to report eventual improvements in reading and mathematics scores than those where trust levels were low. By 1997, schools with high levels of trust had a one in two chance of being in the “improving” category, compared with lower-trust schools, which had only a one in seven chance. Schools whose staffs reported low levels of trust both in 1994 and 1997 had “virtually no chance of showing improvement in either reading or mathematics,” the authors write.

“These data provide our first evidence directly linking the development of relational trust in a school community and long-term improvements in academic productivity,” write Ms. Schneider and Mr. Bryk.

The researchers acknowledge that improvements in academic productivity were less likely in schools with high levels of poverty, racial isolation, and student mobility, but they say that a strong correlation between trust and student achievement remains even after controlling for such factors.

Management systems in schools and districts can either undermine or enhance trust, the authors say.

For example, a principal’s power to choose the staff, rather than being obligated to accept whatever staff members are sent from the central administrative office, is pivotal to his or her ability to assemble a team devoted to the vision articulated for a school. A school leader’s inability to remove incompetent teachers can corrode faculty trust and the faith that the faculty’s mission can be accomplished. The practice of assigning teachers to schools based on seniority, rather than proven competence—driven largely by provisions in union contracts—further aggravates the picture, the authors write.

The size of a school can play a role as well. The researchers found that trusting ties among teachers, administrators, parents, and students are easier to build in schools of 350 or fewer students.

Should anyone view their research as a plea for a warm-and-fuzzy approach to student learning at a time when data-driven proof of learning gains is so avidly sought, Mr. Bryk and Ms. Schneider take pains to note that it is in such times that trusting relationships in schools are needed the most.

Trust reduces the sense of vulnerability that comes with the risk of change and facilitates the collective decisionmaking necessary to such change, they write. It helps staff perform well without intensive monitoring and it sustains their ethical imperative to advance children’s best interests.

“In this regard,” the two scholars write, “relational trust constitutes a moral resource for school improvement.”

Ms. Schneider believes her research with Mr. Bryk makes an important contribution to the national debate about school improvement.

“People in a school community are involved in one another’s lives, and sometimes we forget about the importance of the way they interrelate with one another and how that makes a difference in the way learning takes place,” she said.

“This is about not forgetting the people. I think that’s what we’ve brought back to the table.”

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation

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