Thursday, June 4, 2015

Can We Rebuild Social Capital?

I often disagree with his answers, but Mike Petrilli frequently asks excellent questions.

In the recent National Review, Petrilli is spinning off Robert Putnam's latest book about America's children and discussing the idea of social capital. The problem is simple, and clear:"the fundamental reality of life for many children growing up in poverty in America today is the extremely low level of 'social capital' of their families, communities, and schools."

The problem with any deliberate attempt to build social capital, as Petrilli correctly notes, is that nobody has any idea how to do it. Petrilli accuses Putnam of suggesting that we throw money at the problem. Well, I haven't read the book yet (it's on the summer reading list), so I can't judge whether Petrilli's summation is correct or not.

But Petrilli himself offers three strategies for addressing the issue. And as is often the case, while he raises some interesting and worthwhile questions, his line of inquiry is derailed by his mission of selling charters and choice.
1. Invite poor children into schools with social capital to spare.

No, I don't think so. Social capital is about feeling supported, connected, and at home in your own community. You cannot feel at home in your own community by going to somebody else's community.

Schools contribute to social capital by belonging to the community, by being an outgrowth of the community which has significant role in running those schools. Inviting students into schools that are not in their community, that do not belong to those students and their families-- I don't think that gets you anything. Social capital finds expression in schools through things like evening gatherings at the school by people from the community. It depends on students and families who are tied through many, many links-- neighbors, families, friends. It depends on things as simple as a student who helps another student on homework by just stopping over at the house for a few minutes. These are things that don't happen when the students attend the same school, but live a huge distance apart.

Making a new student from another community a co-owner in a school is extraordinarily different. But anything less leaves the new student as simply a guest, and guests don't get to use the social capital of a community.

2. Build on the social capital that does exist in poor communities.

The basic idea here is solid. Putrnam's grim picture aside, poor communities still have institutions and groups that provide social capital, connectedness, support. I agree with Petrilli here, at least for about one paragraph. Then a promising idea veers off into shilling for charters and choice. 

Education reformers should look for ways to nurture existing social capital and help it grow. Community-based charter schools are one way; so (again) is private-school choice.

Churches, service organizations (in my neck of the woods, think volunteer fire departments), and social groups (think Elks) are all community-based groups that add to social capital. Unfortunately, as Putnam noted in Bowling Alone, those sorts of groups are all in trouble. 
One of the fundamental problems of social capital and these groups is a steady dispersing of the people in the community. People spend too much time spreading out to come together. Spreading them out more, so that their children are all in different schools and no longer know each other-- I don't see how that helps. Social capital is about connection.
3. Build social capital by creating new schools.

Exactly where does a high-poverty community come up with the money to build a new school? The answer, he acknowledges, is for charter operators to come in from outside and create a new school from scratch. He also acknowledges that it's an "open question" whether such schools create any new social capital. 
I would also ask if it's really more inexpensive and efficient to spend the resources needed to start a new school from scratch than it is to invest those resources in the school that already exists. Particularly since with few exceptions, that new school is created to accommodate only some of the students in the community. If the community ends up financing two separate but unequal schools, that's not a financial improvement, and it is not creating social capital.

Do we actually care?

In the midst of these three points, Petrilli posits that growing social capital and growing academic achievement (aka test scores) are two different goals that are not always compatible, and we should not sacrifice test scores on the altar of social capital.

On this point I think Petrilli is dead wrong. There is not a lick of evidence that high test scores are connected to later success in life. On the other hand, there's plenty of evidence that social capital does, in fact, have a bearing on later success in life. High test scores are not a useful measure of anything, and they are not a worthwhile goal for schools or communities. 
Petrilli's is doubtful that lefty solutions that involve trying to fix poverty by giving poor people money are likely to help, and that many social services simply deliver some basic services without building social capital, and in this, I think he might have a point.

And it occurs to me, reading Petrilli's piece, that I live in a place that actually has a good history of social capital, both in the building and the losing. I'm going to be posting about that in the days ahead because I think social capital conversation is one worth having, and definitely one worth having as more than a way to spin charters and choice. Sorry to leave you with a "to be continued..." but school is ending and I've got time on my hands.


  1. I think the thing that offends me most about that article is that it's an article about education and poverty written by a guy who hasn't even passing experience in either arena.

    I have literally taught (probably 20 years ago now) in schools in his actual residential neighborhood - the parents treated the teachers to breakfast on their first duty day back from summer and never before had I seen caviar as an option in omelettes (and never since, come to think of it). Median income there stands over $138K, even though Petrilli sends his kid to a "Public Private" school in our district. It's all theory to him and to Fordham, just a big Monopoly game brought to you by the same guy who wants charters reserved for Good Kids (Whose Parents Apply And Who Win The Lottery) while Other People's Children get thrown under the bus.

    My skin is still crawling 2 days after I first read it. *shudder*

  2. Petrilli simply does not understand what social capital is. For that matter, neither does E.D. Hirsch or the entire core knowledge movement.

    Social capital is not something that people without it gain that allows them to freely access opportunity and social mobility. Social capital is the combination of social mores and cultural knowledge that the already powerful use to justify their increasing accumulation of actual capital at the expense of pretty much everyone else.

    Sure, there are always cases of people from low social capital backgrounds who crack the code and are allowed in (more often invited in) but they are the exception that proves the rule.

    When this country had a workforce that was largely unionized, families had a chance to build enough real capital generation over generation so that their descendents had a chance to be socially mobile. Well, more to the point, families of European descent had that chance. But by now so much capital has accumulated into so few hands that such mobility is badly shut down. Claiming that "social capital" will save the day for impoverished and dying middle is just a diversion from the real problem -- our elite are hoarders.

  3. Right here is why Mike and his Fordham pals won't solve the problem: