Educational reform in Mexico is at a basic disconnect. Recent large educational research studies conducted over several years in many schools have found that improving student learning school-wide only happens through social learning among teachers, among students, among teachers and parents. Groups committed to learning together take action together and then reflect on the results and decide what further actions to take. Social learning is motivating and relevant to real life, because it permits social action. But it depends on mutual trust.
The lack of public confidence in Mexican institutions is a huge impediment to improvement. The citizenry has become skeptical of all public servants, believing that they got where they are primarily to serve themselves. Even if those in charge of government offices and schools are making a superhuman effort to reform them, they are swimming against the tide if they can’t inspire the confidence of their co-workers and the general public. And that’s not easy in a political atmosphere of deep mistrust with dark overtones of cynicism.
It doesn´t matter how much formal authority a position carries. Achieving organizational goals depends on the support of others, and for that, relational trust is a keystone.
In an earlier column I mentioned a study of school leadership by research teams from the Universities of Toronto and Minnesota. More than 180 schools took part (Wallace Foundation, 2010). The study concludes, “Leadership effects on student achievement occur largely because effective leadership strengthens professional community – a special environment within which teachers work together to improve their practice and improve student learning. Professional community, in turn, is a strong predictor of instructional practices that are strongly associated with student achievement.”
Of course the one indispensable ingredient for a professional community of this nature is mutual trust. A teacher´s job in itself is difficult. “When implementing “reform,” they must assume risks, deal with organizational conflict, attempt new practices, and take on extra work, such as engaging with colleagues in planning, implementing, and evaluating improvement initiatives. Teachers quite reasonably ask, ‘Why should we do this?’ A context characterized by high relational trust provides an answer: In the end, reform is the right thing to do.”
Bryk and Schneider (2003) researched the ongoing educational reform efforts to improve student learning in more than 400 schools in Chicago for over a decade. Their study included a survey to measure relational trust among the stakeholders of each school. “Our overall measure of school trust, on the basis of approximately two dozen survey items addressing teachers’ attitudes toward their colleagues, principals, and parents, proved a powerful discriminator between improving and nonimproving schools. A school with a low score on relational trust at the end of our study had only a one-in-seven chance of demonstrating improved academic productivity. In contrast, half of the schools that scored high on relational trust were in the improved group. On average, these improving schools recorded increases in student learning of 8 percent in reading and 20 percent in mathematics in a five-year period. The schools in the nonimproving group lost ground in reading and stayed about the same in mathematics. Most significant was the finding that schools with chronically weak trust reports throughout the period of the study had virtually no chance of improving in either reading or mathematics.”
Bryk and Schneider concluded that school communities with high levels of relational trust most often have principals who are examples of such qualities as respect, personal regard, professional competence in key areas and personal integrity. They set the tone in nurturing an inclusive and respectful professional dialogue, inviting collaboration in developing a shared vision of school improvement and eloquently articulating that vision in word and deed. The principal consistently defends the right of students to feel safe and learn, and tenaciously faces off against adverse situations or persons. The school is administered with efficiency and justice. For all of the above, parents and teachers trust the school leader and they trust each other so much that they feel no need to cover up their failures and mistakes and can ask colleagues for their help in improving.
Please don’t ask what country I think we live in. School communities like that, school leaders like that, exist in Mexico. Let’s learn from and multiply them.