Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Schools and Social Capital

Andy Smarick has continued his series of meditations on how modern education reform and classic conservatism have fallen out of alignment. It's a thoughtful series and worth exploring, but I found his latest particularly striking.

In "Ed reform's blind spot: Catholic schools and social capital" Smarick considers once more the question of what conservatives should want to preserve, and he focuses particularly on social capital.

Social capital describes the “benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks.” When people are connected, they (and even those outside the network) gain, thanks to sharing, interdependence, joint learning, collective action, solidarity, and more.

In case you're not a link-follower, I'll note that the first link leads to Bowling Alone, one of the more indispensable examinations of social connections in our world. Kudos for that reference.

Smarick uses the concept of social capital mostly to talk about Catholic schools, and how they exert a positive influence on neighborhoods stricken by poverty. That reminds me of John Hopkins' longitudinal study in Baltimore; the headline on that study was that family and money are destiny, but it also suggests that neighborhood (not entirely disconnected form the other two) is destiny as well.

But it also resonates for me in the context of my own corner of the world. In fact, I think that in small town and rural areas like mine, the social capital aspect of the schools may be the aspect that folks value most.

I live in an area where High School of Origin is still considered important information about grown adults. It's an area where school sports are a Big Deal, a source of identity and community pride. I live in a county where four separate school districts serve a shrinking student population. My own district and the closest neighbor system now serve fewer students together than my own district held by itself just twenty years ago. We now share sports teams, marching bands, and school play programs. But nobody thinks a merger is going to happen any time soon, and I could explain that by saying that the residents, particularly in the smaller district, do not want to sacrifice the generations of social capital they have invested in their schools.

Districts also find, over and over, that a simple appeal to economic reality, however harsh, rarely moves residents and taxpayers to shut down a school. My district, like many others, has had to essentially confront the question: "How much is this social capital worth to you in cold, hard tax dollars?" The answer repeatedly turns out to be, "A great deal."

Smarick is correct to note that many reformsters have completely disregarded social capital invested in local schools, as well as the real world benefits that come from it. Reformsters and privatizers might do well to consider the issue of how little social capital (which takes considerable time to gather) is invested in shiny new charters, particularly those charters which are not tied to any particular neighborhood.

I've noted before that I find it strange for conservatives to chime in with the idea that students should not be "trapped" by their zip codes or neighborhoods. There is a strength and value and wealth of social capital that comes from having a school rooted in a particular place. It should not be lightly discarded. Heritage, history, community, connection-- these sorts of things have value. "Social capital" and the research that measures its effect just put a scientific face on a human value that many people already recognized.

Social capital doesn't just have implications for Cathoilic schools, but for public schools. It has implications for staffing as well-- longevity matters, and builds more capital.

Smarick wraps up with a striking and apt image:

Those who cleared old, messy “swamps” to make room for modern development severely damaged ecosystems. Those who cleared old, eyesore “slums” to make room for shiny, new public housing high-rises severely damaged communities. 

This is education reform as nature conservation, focusing not on what they want to plow under, but on what should be preserved and saved. I think plenty of folks understand that urge to conserve instinctively, and I think social capital represents a huge investment that people have been loathe to sacrifice just for a few untested and allegedly magic beans. Reformsters often come across as the guys with the big bulldozers who want to pave the swamp, get rid of the noisy birds, kill off the annoying animals, and replace the plants with longlasting perfect plastic flowers. Reformsters seem to think of themselves as men of vision, but there is a whole world of value that they seem to be blind to.


  1. I teach in a rural school district with a large Native American population. Along with social capital, cultural capital cannot be ignored.

  2. Thank you for this post, Peter. During these years of local communities under attack by tremendously arrogant ed reformer outsiders, I have often thought about how that damaging movement works to pull apart the fabric of communities -- typically in places that need the exact opposite thing to happen.

    Here's how I see it at this point. Human interconnection in physical space (homes, neighborhoods) creates individual strands that accumulate over time (local history) and form a fabric of community. For the fabric to be strong, the ‘fibers’ must be well-tended and nourished. I visualize how felt is made.

    To people who care about their neighborhoods and want them to become healthier and stronger, it's clear that the reformers -- who arrived on the scene to "disrupt" as much and as fast as they could -- never had one bit of respect for those local communities, the people in them, the local history, or the importance of bonding and ties.

    I am glad the truth is finally getting out about the ed reform disaster because it’s been an ugly nightmare. I’m still sad though because this awful era is not nearly close enough to being over.