Social Capital Matters As Much As Human Capital – A Message To Skeptics

In recent posts (here and here), we have been arguing that social capital -- social relations and the resources that can be accessed through them (e.g., support, knowledge) -- is an enormously important component of educational improvement. In fact, I have suggested that understanding and promoting social capital in schools may be as promising as focusing on personnel (or human capital) policies such as teacher evaluation, compensation and so on. 

My sense is that many teachers and principals support this argument, but I am also very interested in making the case to those who may disagree. I doubt very many people would disagree with the idea that relationships matter, but perhaps there are more than a few skeptics when it comes to how much they matter, and especially to whether or not social capital can be as powerful and practical a policy lever as human capital.

In other words, there are, most likely, those who view social capital as something that cannot really be leveraged cost-effectively with policy intervention toward any significant impact, in no small part because it focuses on promoting things that already happen and/or that cannot be mandated. For example, teachers already spend time together and cannot/should not be required to do so more often, at least not to an extent that would make a difference for student outcomes (although this could be said of almost any policy).

Some might even add additional force to this argument by portraying social capital as a kind of unaffordable luxury – i.e., poor kids are way behind, and need all the attention and time they can get. "Are you are telling us that teachers need time to hang out with their colleagues?," they might contend.

My first response is pretty straightforward: Yes, one of the things I am saying is that teachers should spend more (and better) time together and interact more. And I am of course not the only one saying this. In fact, the idea is catching on. Just a few days ago the New York Times published a piece -- Why Do Americans Stink at Math? -- delivering a similar message. A few weeks ago, the Huffington Post ran a column by Linda Darling Hammond -- To Close the Achievement Gap, We Need to Close the Teaching Gap -- calling for "redesign[ing] schools to create time for collaboration," among other important things.

Why do I think all this is worth it? In a previous post, I discussed four studies, in the context of a larger research literature, making an explicit connection between teachers' social capital and student learning. I would submit that this body of work is at least suggestive that social capital is important enough to merit serious attention, even if entails reallocating resources as important as time.

The following are three concrete suggestions that have been shown to increase social capital in diverse ways.

Smart Professional Development

A number of studies have found evidence of a link between extensive, content-focused professional development and changes to teachers’ practice (e.g., Cohen & Hill 2001; Penuel & Gallagher 2009).

In addition, Gamoran, Gunter and Williams (2005) showed that sustained and coherent professional development can be leveraged to create strong collegial ties among teachers by focusing on collaborative examination of students' work and joint lesson planning - two activities that require ongoing dialogue among teachers, thereby encouraging "the emergence of group norms, reciprocity in their relationships, trust, and information-sharing among teachers -- all elements of social capital" (p. 115).

Importantly, moreover, the relationship between professional development and social capital goes both ways: Penuel et al 2012, for example, demonstrated that peer interactions can augment the mechanism of teachers’ learning from professional development.

Know Your Organization/System, 'Use Your Tools'

One can certainly consider increasing social capital as a “standalone” objective, but social capital can also be viewed as a resource that can aid (or hinder) the implementation of any reform.

Daly, Moolenaar, Bolivar & Burke (2010) studied 24 schools in a district that was implementing a systemwide reform around literacy. The researchers found that "the underlying social networks of these schools played a significant role in either supporting or constraining the ability of the grade level to understand and implement the reform." Grade levels at which teachers interacted more frequently "reported being able to enact the reform at a greater depth than those more sparsely connected grade levels" (p. 381). In addition, "these interaction patterns were associated with a greater focus on teaching and learning as well as increased collective action, grade level efficacy, and collective satisfaction" (p. 381).

As Finnigan and Daly suggested in a previous post in this series, reforms cannot work as well as intended when information is not shared among the various players (e.g., central administrators, principals, teachers) during the implementation process.

According to Daly, "a first step when undertaking a reform is to get the lay of the relational landscape." Usually, prior to implementing a new initiative "we assess 'instructional' or 'content knowledge'. However, recent research suggests that we must also survey the relational landscape as well as leverage 'relational knowledge'; after all, sense making is both an individual and a collective activity."

Thus, one obvious policy recommendation is: Understand the existing social structure and patterns of interactions among staff in schools (but also among schools, district-wide). Use social network analysis (SNA) tools to identify patterns of interaction that are (or aren't) conducive to your goal -- e.g., informal leaders to whom teachers already turn for knowledge and support, principals with dense professional networks, isolated schools, and so on. And then, of course, draw on that knowledge to inform the implementation of your initiative.

Conducting a network study may be more complex (although probably not much more expensive) than administering the typical annual climate survey. But classroom observations or even student surveys, which are routinely used in education research and policy, are often more costly and burdensome than collecting network data, which is usually done via surveys, but also with interviews, diaries etc.

Understand and Leverage Formal and Informal Leadership

Sun, Frank, Penuel & Kim (2013) showed that strategies that promote informal teacher leadership can also be a distinct and important mechanism to disseminate effective classroom practices through interactions.

Since teachers respond differently to help from formal leaders and informal leaders, the authors argue, schools must coordinate formal and informal leaders’ influences in order to ensure the desired impacts on aspects of instructional practices. "This can be done through clearly articulating distinct roles of principals, coaches, and informal teacher leaders and through recognizing them for their accomplishments (e.g., as in personnel evaluations)" (p. 26). One strategy to promote informal teacher leadership is broadening expectations for faculty with instructional expertise -- e.g., make helping less experienced peers part of experienced teachers' job description -- and compensating them accordingly if those expectations are met.


Having discussed a few concrete ideas, I would also hasten to mention that I don't think the social side of reform is just about time, professional development, collecting network measures or rewarding helping behavior. One of the reasons why social capital sounds like a “soft” idea is because it is a “soft idea."

It is, without question, subtle, to some degree unmeasurable, and of course difficult to influence via conventional policy. But, as anyone who has worked in a school for any length of time will tell you, many of the factors that differentiate good from bad schools are not easily quantified, and cannot be brought into existence by quick-and-easy policy interventions. What makes a school – or, for that matter, any organization – great is in no small part intangible. One thing, however, is clear: Innovation and organizational learning are not going to take place in contexts where formal rules "suffocate" the emergence of informal norms and trust, both of which are elements of social capital that are created primarily through social interaction.

School leadership is particularly important when it comes to designing environments that are conducive to the emergence of social capital. Supovitz, Sirinides and May (2010) found that school principals indirectly affect the instructional practice of teachers, which in turn produces improvements in student learning. The researchers conclude that principals’ attention to concepts like ‘mission and goals’ or ‘community and trust’ have subtle yet real organizational influence.

Thus, while it may sound soft and unlikely to result in higher test scores -- at least right away -- it is probably important that school administrators are trained in how to develop a cooperative vision of teaching and learning, as well as the skills needed to identify dynamics or policies that could jeopardize that vision. I admit that the extent to which these things can be learned is an open question and I am not sure of its answer. But real change, which always requires that individuals do things differently, is complex, gradual, and only observable over a period of time.

And it bears reiterating that many policies can be used as vehicles to promote social capital. One example is the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and the opportunities it's already brought about. First, many groups are supporting a delay on attaching stakes to the results of new CCSS-aligned assessments, which could give schools, administrators and educators some breathing room.

Second, the CCSS are a massive implementation challenge, which will require that people work together. As I noted elsewhere, quoting Yasumoto, Uekawa and Bidwell (2001), strong social ties in the workplace can "ease the flow of information, [and] provide collective ability to respond quickly and flexibly when problems of practice occur (...)" The CCSS are not exactly a "problem of practice" or some unforeseen development, but they are a complex initiative and will require a K-12 faculty that works collaboratively, as well as leadership that is supportive of a more connected and collective vision of schools, teaching and learning.

One could even consider social capital development as part of a human capital reform agenda. Research suggests that students of high-ability teachers outperform those of low-ability teachers, but gains are the highest among students whose teachers are high in human and social capital. What's more, even lower-ability teachers perform as well as teachers of average ability if they have strong social capital. In other words, social capital can move teachers from "crummy" to "good" (and perhaps from "good" to "great").

In closing, and given all I've said, it's just hard for me to understand why some foundation or individual donor has not invested more and more systematically in developing this approach, and translating it into action, especially after decades of mixed results from programs aimed at improving student outcomes through human capital investments only. The 'social side of reform' is something different with broad appeal, grounded in research and practice, and innovative -- all of which are factors that tend to carry weight among those who support human capital reforms.

- Esther Quintero


This is the third post in a series on “The Social Side Of Education Reform,” exploring the idea that relationships, social capital, and social networks matter in lasting, systemic educational improvement. For more on this series, click here.

Issues Areas


Great post. I share your perplexity as to why we haven't put more systematic funding and resources towards initiatives to develop social capital in our schools.

I am also perplexed as to why a very similar--yet tangible--challenge is similarly ignored: the physical capital of our schools. Physical infrastructure and design also have demonstrated impacts on human behavior and cognition, yet we seem unwilling to invest in this area.

It may be that this inertia in attitude towards social and physical capital is that these areas require heavier investment or greater amounts of private-public and cross-sector collaboration. Either way, sometimes it seems to me that our society is only willing to invest in the ways that are either the easiest or most immediately headline-grabbing.


Mark, thank you for your comment. I agree with you completely. In fact I think that these two ideas are connected; for people to interact, they need to have the time and the space to do it. Seems obvious but, as you point out, usually ignored. Of course this applies to many issues, not just schools. For example, if you want people to walk more, make streets more inviting, be and feel safer, make distances more manageable... etc.

It seems like thinking about time, infrastructure, human interaction, informal norms and trust -- in a way, whole systems -- may be more challenging and not as headline-grabbing like you said, but perhaps more reflective of the way things actually work.


Esther: An absolutely great contribution to our field. I have been reading Fullan's new book (The Principal) and Hargreaves/Fullan Professional Capital. Also, found very interesting a recent study by Joan Talbert regarding the Sanger School District in S. California. Daniel Willingham wrote an interesting piece in support of the article you mentioned (Why Do Americans Stink at Math). Many of you seem to be approaching this idea of social capital at the same time. I appreciate your citations in your articles as I have not read most. I think your work in this area is very important! I hope more is coming.

I am particularly interested in documented practices that facilitate social capital. Any ideas or recommendations you have will be appreciated. Although I am a recently retired high school principal, I work with school principals in this area. To this point, I believe one way to improve is to be in a dialogue with others using specific articles/books for the study.

Thanks again for your contributions, great stuff.


Hi Greg,

Thanks for your comment and suggestions -- I will definitely check out Talbert's work.

I totally agree that we need to move from ideas/theory/research to action/practices/policies and that it's not always clear how to put all this into practice. I know there are some people working on this and I am considering putting together some kind of "resource" page precisely to help fill this gap.

Also, feel free to get in touch via email if you want to discuss any of this in more depth.

Thanks again.