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Crucial Report: Relationships, Not Funding, Key to Student Achievement

For school leaders, securing and maintaining funding for important building projects or learning initiatives is an ongoing, pervasive concern, especially in communities with large populations of disadvantaged students.

For better or worse, school funding levels are often linked with student achievement. The bigger budget, the thinking goes, the more resources to apply to success.

But a new study of Michigan schools finds that social capital–the relationships that school staff build and nurture with students and parents–has a potentially much stronger impact on student learning than financial clout.

Relationships matter

The study, which appears in the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, used a combination of elementary teacher surveys, student test performance data, and state data on per-pupil spending in Michigan, Ohio State News reports.

While the study did find a correlation between increased spending and higher test scores, it found a much stronger tie between social capital and student performance. The impact of social capital, or relationships, on math test scores, for example, proved three times more significant than financial capital, according to the report. Where reading scores were concerned, the impact was five times more significant.

In high-poverty districts, where financial capital is often scarce, focusing on key relationships–especially teacher and student relationships–can have a huge effect on student progress, researchers say. Though they caution that social capital can’t be built simply by spending more money.

“Sustained interactions over time focused on children’s learning and effective teaching practice are the best way for people to build trust and build networks that are at the heart of social capital,” Roger Goddard, co-author of the study and a professor of educational administration at the Ohio State University, tells Ohio State News. “We need intentional effort by schools to build social capital. We can’t leave it to chance.”

Intentionality in practice

So what does a school- or district-wide effort to build social capital look like? How can schools encourage stronger teacher and student relationships or more effective communication between parents and school leaders?

A recent whitepaper from K12 Insight outlines four steps school districts can take to build stronger family-school partnerships.

    1. Focus on listening to parents. To establish trust with parents requires making them feel heard. Schools and districts need to ensure they have systems for listening to parents–and they need to demonstrate how they use that feedback. This may mean monitoring social media for parent inquiries, establishing a portal for parents to more easily voice concerns, or simply visiting students’ homes to talk candidly with parents.The National PTA established its Parent Teacher Home Visits program to provide training and support for schools to improve the home connection. Research conducted in 2014 found that home visits improve student learning and outcomes, and also increase deeper parent involvement.
    2. Support educators in community engagement. Quality customer service and community engagement in schools doesn’t happen overnight–and it can’t happen without a concerted effort by everyone in your district. As with any other skill, district leaders need to provide practical, useful training and professional development for staff and faculty about how to engage with students, families, and community members.
    3. Map educational goals to family engagement. Ensuring that parents and students feel included in major school-based initiatives and decisions is another key way to establish trust. When your district is rolling out a new reading comprehension initiative, for instance, parents and students should be involved before, during, and after the strategy is launched. Districts should also have strong systems to report out key metrics and solicit ongoing feedback from families.
    4. Take an organized approach to engagement. Parents are critical assets for both teachers and school leaders in developing goals for students and helping with important decision-making. Parent-teacher conferences are one simple way to ensure parents are involved with their students’ progress. But schools and districts should think about broader initiatives, such as districtwide surveys and conversations, to help parents act as advocates for their children and other students in the district.

For more on building social capital in your district, download the full whitepaper, The power of family and school partnerships: 4 keys to building stronger ties between the school and home.