Broadening The Educational Capability Conversation: Leveraging The Social Dimension

Our guest author today is James P. Spillane, Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. Spillane has published extensively on issues of education policy, policy implementation, school reform, and school leadership. His most recent books are Distributed Leadership in Practice and Diagnosis and Design for School Improvement. Learn more about Spillane's work at

We are well into a new century – 15 years and counting! Yet, we continue to fixate on last century notions about human capability. Specifically, we still dwell mostly on the individual teacher or school leader, on investing in and developing their individual human capital so as to improve their productivity and in turn generating higher returns to the individual, school organization, school system, and society. The empirical evidence has established educational professionals' human capital is undoubtedly important for school and school-system productivity.* At the same time, however, by fixating primarily on human capital, we miss or undermine the significance and potential of social capital.

Social capital captures the idea that capability (and by extension productivity) is not simply an individual matter but also a social matter. In other words, in addition to individual capability, there are (often untapped) resources that reside in the relations among people within organizations, systems, or society – a social capability. These social relations can be a source of and a channel for crucial resources such as trust, information, expertise, materials, security, obligation, incentives, and so on - see Bryk & Schneider 2002; Coburn 2001; Daly, Moolenaar, Bolivar, & Burke 2010; Frank, Zhao, & Borman 2004; Frank, Zhao, Penuel, Ellefson, & Porter 2011; Louis, Marks, & Kruse 1996; Moolenaar, Karsten, Sleegers, & Daly 2014. In a given system or organization, social capital is much more than the aggregate of members' human capital.

A number of studies over the last couple of decades have theorized and documented the returns from investments in social capital to both individuals and organizations, including schools and school systems. Yet, the factors associated with the development of social capital remain largely unexplored: We know that social capital matters for important outcomes (e.g., teacher effectiveness, student achievement, school improvement), but we have much to learn about how to generate or strengthen it when it isn't present or is weak. It is important that we figure this out because, as the late Pierre Bourdieu noted, social relations -- a necessary condition for social capital development -- are neither “a natural given” nor “a social given” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 249). Social relations don’t just happen; instead, they are a function of individual and collective action. Thus, to reap the benefits of social capital, we need a better understanding of how to invest in it. A first step is to design organizations and systems that facilitate social interactions among school and school-system staff. And, to do this, it is essential that we understand the factors associated with the presence (or absence) of social ties.

Recent research suggests that we can intervene to shape social relations in organizations and systems. Cynthia Coburn and Jennifer Russell, for example, show how school district policy shapes relations among school staff (Coburn & Russell 2008). In his recent book, Unanticipated Gains: The Origins Of Network Inequality In Everyday Life, Mario Small shows how organizational arrangements influence relations among people.

In a series of recent studies, my colleagues and I not only describe social relations, but we also identify the factors associated with the formation and existence of social ties in schools and school systems. We report on this work in several manuscripts -- Spillane, Kim, & Frank 2012; Spillane, Hopkins & Sweet 2014; Spillane & Hopkins 2013; Spillane & Coldren 2011; Hopkins, Spillane et al 2013 -- but we summarize below key findings that should be relevant for those interested leveraging the power of social relations in school improvement efforts:

Social Capital Within Schools

Within schools, leaders’ and teachers’ individual characteristics such as race and gender are positively associated with the existence of a relationship related to instruction. This is not surprising, as sociologists have long documented the principle of ‘homophily’ -- in everyday life, the familiar notion that “birds of a feather flock together.” That is, we generally prefer to hang out with people who are like us.

Second, and importantly, while our work suggests that personal characteristics of individuals influence their advice and information seeking behavior, these characteristics are not nearly as important as organizational factors that school and system leaders can intervene on. Specifically:

  • Having an instruction-related relationship in a prior year is predictive of a current year relationship, which suggests that social ties persist over time;
  • Teachers who teach the same grade are more likely to develop a relationship about instruction. There are several possible explanations. First, teachers in the same grade tend to be located physically close to one another, potentially facilitating contact. Second, they teach the same material, which might incentivize relations among them. Third, they are more likely to participate in the same organizational routines, thus increasing opportunities for interaction;
  • School staff who occupy formal leadership positions are more likely to provide instructional advice and information than staff who don't;
  • The more professional development a school staff member receives, the more likely he/she is to provide and receive instructional advice and information. This suggests that the returns from professional development are not simply direct (i.e., improving the skill of those who attend), but that they may also contribute indirectly to other staff members' on the job learning.**

Social Capital Between Schools

Our work suggests that the role of the formal organization also supersedes individual characteristics in forging ties at the system level. Specifically:

  • More than anything else, occupying a leadership position predicted instructional advice and information interactions between schools. Further, subject-specific leaders were more likely to be sought out and to provide instructional advice to staff in other schools than any other type of leader.
  • School subject matters when it comes to instruction-related interactions among school staff: Interactions among school staff about reading language arts are more plentiful than about mathematics or science instruction both within and between schools.*** This suggests that efforts to develop social capital should take the subject into consideration.

Taken together, this body of work indicates that schools and school system leaders who are keen on developing social capital should weigh carefully decisions about leadership and teaching assignments, as well as those regarding professional development. Decisions about teaching assignments are often based on teachers’ experience or ability working with a particular age group. But, if our analyses are correct, administrators should also consider how to distribute teachers across grades in a way that ensures that ‘‘exemplary’’ teachers are dispersed to maximize their potential influence on colleagues.

Furthermore, by selectively re-assigning teachers to different grades from one year to the next, leaders may be able to forge new instructional ties (without eroding existing relations, which, we found, persist overtime) that cut across grades among their staff. Finally, being strategic and intentional about assignments to leadership positions and investments in professional development can shape instructional interactions among school staff.

Overall, though, the take home message is simple: As system and organizational leaders we can influence who talks to whom about instruction, which we know is crucial to school improvement efforts. So, let’s strategically rise to the task.


* Productivity here refers to an array of school outcomes, especially the democratic goals of schooling that have been mostly sidelined in school reform debates over the past quarter century.

** Our analysis found that teachers who had more professional development were more likely to receive advice and information from colleagues suggesting that they may be encouraged by school leaders to relay the advice and information they gained through professional development to their colleagues. Another scenario is that teachers who are experiencing more instructional difficulty may seek out, or be pressured to attend, more professional development and at the same time receive more advice and information from colleagues who want to help them to improve their practice.

*** Our work suggests several reasons for these differences. First, the norms and beliefs about instruction and its improvement differ by school subject. Second, this research was conducted in elementary schools where the infrastructure for supporting instruction and its improvement is more developed for English Language Arts than Mathematics or Science. Third, education policy has tended to privilege English Language Arts over Mathematics and sidelined Science in particular providing fewer incentives for teachers to interact about it.