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Social Capital increases school performance

Posted August 19, 2011 9:22 AM by Ted Jackson

So the cover story of the Fall 2011 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review is called "The Missing Link in School Reform." At Ascendant, we help a lot of schools to improve performance, so the article caught my eye. In the article, author Carrie Leana introduces the concept of Social Capital. She says that it may be more important than Human Capital in improving schools.

Human Capital refers to the skills and capabilities of the people that work in an organization. This is also a common Balanced Scorecard term. In the Balanced Scorecard, sometimes we refer to strategic job families, or those key jobs that would help an organization meet its goals. In schools, you could imagine the job of a math and English teacher being key jobs. While all of the other jobs are very important, a student needs to be able to succeed in math and English to be able to graduate (a key metric of school success).

For teachers, Human Capital is improved by providing learning opportunities, training, and general on the job experience. Of course recent studies have shown that teachers with more experience do not produce better results (in general). Sticking with our math example, you probably know that in elementary grades, all subjects can be taught by the same teacher. Well, 30% of teachers are uncomfortable teaching math. If this statistic is right, then between kindergarten and 6th grade, a student may have 2 bad math teachers. That could prevent a student from being prepared for middle and high school, and thus raise the chances of not graduating.

The typical solution to a teacher not having math skills is to provide directed math instruction (from a central office math department). To get this instruction, the teacher would have to be identified as needing help. Teachers do not want to be identified as bad teachers, so they try to avoid this characterization, and thus they would hide from getting the standard professional help as much as possible.

Thus the introduction of the term Social Capital. Social Capital, Leana argues, is the knowledge that is held through relationships in the schools. Leana studied schools that were performing well and found that teachers were much more comfortable asking other teachers in their school about techniques for teaching math, and they were willing to learn from the group of teachers in the school.

I like the concept, and Leana states that Principals can help grow social capital, and high turnover in schools prevents social capital from developing. Many times, school reform in urban schools has a component of portfolio management, which can mean closing underperforming schools and opening new schools. It seems like there should be a focus on managing social capital in these situations. It also seems like principals and school administrators should be aware of the dangers of social capital as well. "Erasure Parties" in Atlanta might be one example where school teachers were leveraging their social networks to help inflate the grades of their students.

So, putting back on the performance management hat that I normally wear, I have to ask the question, how would you measure social capital in a school? An outcome might be the performance in a subject across an entire school. Drivers would be a little trickier. Maybe a driver is how the performance development process is run within a school. Do good teachers mentor other teachers? Are you conducting training sessions across a department within a school to share practices of what works and what doesn't? It is interesting to think about.

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Joe Siedlecki from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation continues this discussion at the MSDF website.

# Posted By Ted | 9/28/11 4:04 PM
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