Friday, August 1, 2008

The Importance of Relational Trust

Neither governance, nor money, nor curricula nor any of the other usual elements make the difference. Without a certain element not normally identified or considered in reform studies, the achievement gap will be unlikely to narrow substantially. According to Parker J. Palmer, author of “The Courage to Teach,” education is a perennially tweakable political hot button. Political initiatives equal quick fixes, and quick fixes do not work. Even sincere reform efforts are doomed by the emphasis on symptoms rather than root causes.

Mr. Palmer was the guest on NPR's New Dimensions, July 22, 2008 (appears to be a repeat broadcast) He described the results of Chicago's education mandate of 1988. The researchers found that deprivation in any of the elements usually targeted for reform did not explain shortcomings in education quality. One element, more than any other, explained and predicted education quality. That element the researchers called “relational trust.”

When I reflect on the various educational settings in which I have taught, I find I agree completely with Mr. Palmer. Settings characterized by trust in the good faith motivations and efforts of all the stakeholders led to high achievement and satisfaction levels. Other types of settings produced less achievement and satisfaction regardless of whether every other element was in place or not.

Relational trust in Japanese and American schools looks a little different, but produces the same high results. Reports comparing the Japanese education system with the American education system typically focus on the same superficial elements with perhaps an analysis of portability. The concept of relational trust integrates what we know, and helps us understand that importing some Japanese ways of doing things, in the absence of relational trust, will likely result in just one more doomed reform effort.

Relational trust clarifies the conundrum of why certain reforms seem to work great in some schools, but fail in other schools. During the 1980’s there was a popular method for organizing and presenting curriculum “Workshop Way.” It is just one example of an implementation that I observed working great in some schools and having no effect in others. Inconsistent results rendered even good ideas mere fads.

According to Mr. Palmer, every interaction asks the question, “Is what I see what I get?” Every relationship, every interaction is about trust. He believes our institutions cannot be changed from the outside, that they must be changed by insiders. I once observed insider change completely transform a school from a low achieving school to a high achieving school in less than two years. The change required no more money, no additional testing, and no new curriculum. The change happened under the nose, but completely out of the radar of the superintendent. If he had known, he would have sabotaged our efforts. By the time he became aware, it was a fait accompli.

So what is relational trust? The factors of relational trust are respect, competence, personal regard and integrity.
Can excellent work be coerced from principals, teachers, and students simply by withholding diplomas, slashing funds, and publishing embarrassing statistics in the newspaper?...

Bryk and Schneider contend that schools with a high degree of "relational trust," as they call it, are far more likely to make the kinds of changes that help raise student achievement than those where relations are poor. Improvements in such areas as classroom instruction, curriculum, teacher preparation, and professional development have little chance of succeeding without improvements in a school's social climate...

What is relational trust? Bryk and Schneider readily admit it is "an engaging but also somewhat elusive idea" as a foundation for school improvement. But after thousands of hours spent observing schools before, during, and after the school day they suggest four vital signs for identifying and assessing trust in schools:

Respect. Do we acknowledge one another's dignity and ideas? Do we interact in a courteous way? Do we genuinely talk and listen to each other? Respect is the fundamental ingredient of trust, Bryk and Schneider write.
Competence. Do we believe in each other's ability and willingness to fulfill our responsibilities effectively? The authors point out that incompetence left unaddressed can corrode schoolwide trust at a devastating rate.
Personal regard. Do we care about each other both professionally and personally? Are we willing to go beyond our formal roles and responsibilities if needed to go the extra mile?
Integrity. Can we trust each other to put the interests of children first, especially when tough decisions have to be made? Do we keep our word?

Mr. Palmer integrates human relationships, education, health care, institutions and politics. I invite you to listen to the entire program.

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