Penny Bender Sebring (PhD85) Discusses 'Is Great Teaching Enough?'


Schools that are strong in trusting relationships both within the school and with the community are more likely to close the achievement gap, explained Penny Bender Sebring (PhD85), co-director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. She delivered her talk at the Chicago Schools Policy Luncheon on October 29 on "Is Great Teaching Enough? The Impact of School-Community Connections on the Achievement Gap."

According to University of Chicago studies from 2004 and 2006, the following "essential supports" characterized Chicago elementary schools that improved student learning substantially: coherent, ambitious instruction; strong professional capacity; robust parent-community ties; supportive student-centered learning climate; and school leadership as the driver of change.

Schools strong in most of these supports were 10 times more likely to improve, according to Sebring. Detailed research findings are reported in a forthcoming book Sebring co-authored entitled Organizing Schools for Improvement.

Building strong trusting relationships inside the school and with parents is a primary ingredient in helping schools to develop these essential supports, according to the research. "We continue to find that trusting relationships are very important, particularly student-teacher relationships," said Sebring.

While trust is important, it is not equally available at all schools, the researchers found. Sebring spelled out the differences the researchers found in school communities that affected learning gains. Schools classified as truly disadvantaged had the highest stagnation in learning gains, while schools classified racially integrated had the lowest. "Differences among communities in their resources and problems significantly affect the ability of schools to improve," said Sebring.

Sebring pointed to social capital as a "potent catalyst for developing strong schools." She said, "Schools where communities have been successful in building social capital have been more successful in building essential supports." Sebring concluded by summarizing the difficult task for struggling schools: "Schools with weak social capital and high student needs must develop the strongest internal supports."

Joining Sebring at the podium was Charles Payne, author of numerous books on education reform including his most recent, So Much Reform, So Little Change. In response to Sebring's research evidence on trust, Payne commented on what problems with trust look like on the ground. "Schools with problems with trust also have problems in other areas," he noted, including legitimacy of leadership, norms of isolation, lack of safety, and teacher turnover. "The social capital in a school - the way people in a school relate - matters enormously. The same is true in the community."

Responding to Sebring's data on school improvement, Payne explained that social capital matters greatly and the impact of social capital is greatest for the neediest kids. He warned that Chicago's sense of urgency about improving schools should be balanced with an understanding of how change affects social capital. "Whatever the intervention, we need to think about it with an eye toward social capital," he said.
By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 8/14/09