Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Robert Putnam and Cage Busting

It was probably because I was reading Robert Putnam's Our Kids and Rick Hess's Cage Busting Teachers, but in Putnam's book, this section leapt out at me. Putnam is describing social capital, the "informal ties to family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances involved in civic associations, religious institutions, athletic teams, volunteer activities, and so on."

Social capital has repeatedly been shown to be a strong predictor of well-being both for individuals and for communities. Community bonds and social networks have powerful effects on health, happiness, educational success, economic success, public safety and (especially) child welfare. However, like financial capital, social capital is distributed unevenly...

Contrary to romanticized images of close-knit communal life among the poor, lower-class Americans today, especially if they are nonwhite, tend to be socially isolated, even form their neighbors.

Perhaps more important, more educated Americans also have many more "weak ties," that is, connections to wider, more diverse networks. The reach and diversity of these social ties are especially valuable for social mobility and educational and economic advancement, because such ties allow educated, affluent parents and their children to tap a wealth of expertise and support that is simply inaccessible to parents and children who are less well off. 

Now, that speaks to me as a teacher learning about students-- but it also speaks to me just plain as a teacher. Putnam is talking about how the lack of social capital gives poor students a disadvantage, but it got me to thinking about teachers' social capital.

Hess's book talks about authority and power-- but what if the issue Hess is talking about is really social capital?

After all-- one of the side effects of working almost exclusively with children is that teachers don't develop the kind of network of soft ties that other professionals do. In fact, teachers early in their careers are often so busy doing the work that they don't get out, don't join community groups, don't volunteer, don't become part of a "more diverse network." Even things as simple as meeting someone for lunch are not do-able in teacherville.

We've talked a lot about how reformsters have access to a great deal of money, but it's social capital as well. When David Coleman and his buds decided that they had the blueprint for re-inventing American education, they cashed in some social capital and got a meeting with Bill Gates. When I have new ideas about how to revolutionize education, I can...um... tell other faculty in the lounge. Guys like Rick Hess and Mike Petrilli and Arne Duncan have powerful and important people in their phone directory. Guys like me do not.

Weak ties get things done for people with social capital. My child or I have an interest or concern? I know a guy. For the poor, informal weak ties are supplemented with formal government agencies. If a socially capitalized parent is worried that his kid is sick, he cashes in some capital to get an unofficial medical opinion. For the poor, the only solution is a trip to a clinic; they don't have access to a doctor's home number. Likewise, the union often substitutes for teacher weak ties. I may not know how to get connected with a political figure, but my union does.

So when Hess spends time talking about earning moral authority by doing the right thing, when he talks about how to effectively approach the People In Charge to get their permission and support, isn't he perhaps talking about building (or substituting for) social capital?

What is mentoring except offering to share a wealth of social capital with someone who hasn't had a chance to build any yet?

Imagine a world in which every rich and powerful player adopted not schools, but teachers. Imagine if every rich and powerful person decided to become socially connected to four or five classroom teachers, connected well enough that they felt comfy calling him any time.

Of course, it's hard to imagine because what would the teachers offer the rich and powerful player? Because they don't have any social capital to offer him in return. But if such ties became the norm, eventually teachers would become an integral part of a larger network. Heck. Imagine a world where rich and powerful folks connected to each other through their teachers.

But teachers-- because we are isolated in our classrooms, interacting mostly with children, don't build the kind of powerful social capital accounts that other professionals do. Our biggest source of social capital is our students and their families, which means in poor communities the teachers end up with less social capital to "spend" on behalf of their students. In upscale schools, teachers get to grow capital through parent connections, and through former students who go on to be Big Deals.

Seen through this lens, perhaps part of Hess's message is that teachers have more social capital than they think they do, and they should start using it and building it. I think of my colleague Jennifer Berkshire, who's not a teacher, but who gets to interview all sorts of people through the revolutionary technique of calling them up and asking. Sometimes we grossly underestimate the amount of social capital that we have at our disposal.

Maybe the big secret of cage busting is finding ways to build social capital, to create connections, to accumulate the kind of weak ties that make life run better for those who have them. Maybe the cage is not actually a cage, but a kind of null space created by the lack of connections to anything, and we don't need so much to bust the cage as we need to bridge the gap and build connections across that empty zone.

I'm still thinking this stuff through. Maybe when Putnam and Hess give me a call and invite me to sit down with them over lunch to talk about it, I'll flesh it out some more. If they can meet with me for thirty minutes during fifth period.


  1. "Sometimes we grossly underestimate the amount of social capital that we have at our disposal."

    Well, maybe, but I think most of the time people know exactly how much social capital they have. And they know exactly what will happen if they try to "bust out of their cage". The cage may not have bars, but it is very real, reinforced from the first day an employee (in any field, but perhaps especially teaching) starts a new job. Per my analogy in the previous post, perhaps the chimps aren't getting sprayed with water anymore, but there are still real reasons why they don't reach for those bananas.

    "Maybe the big secret of cage busting is finding ways to build social capital, to create connections, to accumulate the kind of weak ties that make life run better for those who have them. Maybe the cage is not actually a cage, but a kind of null space created by the lack of connections to anything, and we don't need so much to bust the cage as we need to bridge the gap and build connections across that empty zone."

    Again, yes and no. I think most teachers find that when they try to actually "cage bust", they get roundly smacked down. Those who are able to build that "social capital" are the ones willing to suck up and cheerlead for admin's pet projects. The only teachers who have "social capital" on the national stage, for instance, are those who are willing to tell us how much Common Core has changed their lives and how valuable they find standardized testing.

    1. I love to read your posts. They're so insightful, and it's amazing you understand so well what's going on when you're not a teacher yourself.

    2. Thanks. I have a bachelor's and master's in psychology, but for various reasons never ended up practicing. But as my kids got old enough for school and I started getting interested in educational issues, I found it fascinating how psychology (primarily behaviorism) has been applied to education in often insidious ways for power and control reasons.

    3. I take it (from the chimp analogy) you're talking about applying behaviorism to teachers? I had never even thought about that or that there might be an effort to try to control me. If you're talking about teacher/student, that's even worse. Teachers, as authority figures, should NOT be into power trips.

      When I was in college in the early 70's, Skinner and behaviorism were going out of vogue and Bruner and cognitive psychology were coming in, and I haven't seen much since then that works better than Bruner. Cognitive psychology, cultural anthropology, ancient history and linguistics/semantics are particular interests of mine.

  2. Very interesting interpretation, Peter. There do seem to be two main problems, which you've alluded to, about this as a solution:
    (1) We would need to be on an equal footing for the rich and powerful to actually listen to us.
    (2) Teaching is a full time job, one which we're suited for, and lobbying, since we can't just pick up the phone and call someone important, is also a full time job. So that is what unions are supposed to be for. I suppose we could try to do this politicking in the summer between decompressing, getting things done to the house so it doesn't fall down on our ears, having the surgery we've been putting off, spending time with our kids, and earning credits for re-licensure, as well as doing some planning for the next year, but it does take a different set of skills than what we might have naturally. If I'd wanted to be a politician or go into sales, I would have done that.

  3. I guess what's really sticking in my craw with Hess and his "cage-busting" is his assumption that, because the cage is invisible, it is therefore not real. This is akin to the days when doctors, who were universally male, would tell their female patients that their female troubles were "all in your head, sweetie". It's invalidating the actual, lived experience of thousands or millions of people and it's coming from a man with an obvious abundance of white male privilege oozing out his pores. Just as we've now realized that female troubles are in fact real with an actual biological basis, Hess needs to realize that the cage is real and demonstrable - Rafe Esquith is but one example and he was allowed to cage-bust more and longer than most (most likely in part because he's male).

    1. I wish I could "Like" that. *sigh*

      (Not that it's likeable, mind you - just that you nailed it.)

  4. Brilliant analysis. One of the most frustrating things about working with teacher leaders and would-be teacher leaders is their deep-seated, sometimes permanently installed belief that they are powerless. They have felt that way so long--and have been so socialized to be accommodating and polite--that it's very difficult to suggest that they do, in fact, have agency. They can have an impact, but rising up and banding together for social justice for themselves and their students *is* risky--and often a risk that well-meaning folks with families to support feel they cannot take.

    Thanks to commenter Dienne for mentioning Rafe Esquith--he's the poster child for what happens when you consistently step outside your class and occupational boundaries. It's all about power and willingness to risk security for principle.

    1. I didn't realize that you're Teacher in a Strange Land. I'm very impressed with the teasers I can read of your blog on EdWeek, since I can't read any more articles this month because I refuse to pay $60 a year to read more than 3 articles a month. Next month I'll be sure to choose three of yours for my monthly reading allowance.

  5. What's being said here is solidifying for me the idea that individual teachers cannot do any kind of "cage-busting" on their own. Teachers need to band together, and that's what unions are for. It feels like our unions have abandoned us and what has to be re-structured to start with is the unions. The unions are also too polite and compliant. We need to demand better learning environments for our students.

    Why is it that once you vote in a union, that's the one you have forever? If we voted every few years which union we wanted, AFT or NEA, maybe they would both do a better job of looking out for our interests.

  6. It seems to me that "cage-busting" individual teachers are as much of a myth as the "hero" teacher.

  7. We also have to band together with parents. That could be our social capital, since both teachers and parents get shafted by the power structure and don't get very far on our own. We need to cultivate the parents. And the unions need to cultivate the parents. Of course, in New York they're accusing the unions of instigating the parents to opt-out when that's not true, so it's a lot we're up against. But the unions really, really need to push back anyway.

    1. That's great, until your principal issues No Trespass against those parents. For realz.

    2. Yeah, depends on how relatively wealthy the parents are. Where I taught they listened to the parents much more often than they listened to the teachers. I was just thinking we need connection and solidarity with someone. The interests of parents and teachers - i.e.,the kids - align more than any others.

  8. "When I have new ideas about how to revolutionize education, I can...um... tell other faculty in the lounge."

    Governor John Kasich says you shouldn't be doing that:


    KASICH: "If I were King in America, I would abolish all teachers lounges, where they sit together and worry about, 'Woe is us!' "

  9. @ Rebecca deCoca August 25, 2015 at 7:56 AM number 1:

    “Lunch with that Peter Greene fellow? At his school? Oh, what fun! I'll have Chef make me one of those “brown bag” type of lunches! We'll use the Range Rover as I understand it's out in the countryside somewhere.”

  10. CBT sounds great theoretically. But new evaluation laws make it virtually impossible. Administrators are not welcoming to opposing ideas. I know that I never get smacked down for them. I've just been marginalized over time.

    The new evaluation laws remove the protections that promote cage busting! I'm in a district with declining enrollment. We all know layoffs are coming. Let the ass-kissing commence! In this environment, questioning or tangling district policy is risky with many administrators. Without seniority protection, and with due process pretty much removed, it is not worth the risk to put oneself out there. Sorry, but it isn't.

    I have 20 years of teaching experience in one district with enough student and parent support to back me up but even then, my employer knows that in a few months, my departure would be forgotten and in five years no one in the school would know who I am.

    So, yeah, good ideas, Hess. But hardly practical in today's nearly at-will employment teaching world.

    1. "I know that I never get smacked down for them. I've just been marginalized over time."

      That's a form of smack down - perhaps the most effective. It's why the silent treatment is such a deadly technique in a relationship - there's no arguing with it.

  11. Dear Mr. Greene:

    You are correct in that the way teachers get social capital with the powerful is through unions. I'm pretty sure on of the reasons for writing a book like this is to NOT talk about any real way teachers can have enough power so that if they are going to be treated badly, those in power know that they must at least follow the law.

    I am in complete agreement with all of the teachers here that know that Mr. Hess's “The Cage Busting Teachers” is bunco. Thanks for the review. It's not on my wish list. Amazon list the book for $29,95, so it's $30 of bunco. I hope you can put your copy of it to good use in your fireplace next winter, Mr. Greene, or perhaps your family can use it like Mr. Voltaire, in “the smallest room” of your house.

    Thank you for your blog.


  12. This idea of social capital for teachers is interesting -- I think, to start, teachers have different amounts of social capital within their own schools (that was certainly true where I taught), depending on which parents and families they know personally, connections they have to district administrators or local political figures, connections to union "higher ups," etc. It's an argument for living in the community in which you teach (while there are still schools rooted in communities) -- which brings up issues of housing policy and affordability, gentrification, etc. -- and it's an argument for participating in union activities, becoming building reps, etc. -- which we all know is difficult given the tasks teachers need to complete daily just to do their basic jobs. It's an argument for the value of tenure, as well. If the unions are going to make connections on behalf of ordinary teachers, ordinary teachers have to build our social capital with the union staff and officers as well. It seems like it's getting harder and harder for teachers to build "social capital," but maybe we need to be more conscious and deliberate about doing that. Much to think about.

  13. Dear Mr. Greene:

    This is a day later. I woke up this morning knowing what to do. (Unfortunately, my part time job intervened.) I'm going to ghost-write some books.When I was writing for my Master's Degree, all my teachers thought I wrote very well, so here goes:

    The first two books or so will be along the lines of a “hit” and the a formulaic second third, fourth, etc, sequels, you get the idea, line of books. My Book will be Titled "If you give a Principal an Unfunded Mandate.” This will be followed by, “If You give a Teacher a Standard.” You have to be in awe about the all the possible books that could flow! Book after book after book!

    After those multiple hits, I'm going to shift over to writing as an Educational Writer. You must understand that I've never written as an Educational Writer, but Heck, if they can write as us, we can write as them.

    So about the new book! I've decided to call it "The Cage-Busting Educational Writer." In it, the educational writer is aware of all of the data, and he/she knows what is up: that people with enormous wealth are paying you to do their bidding. The data suggests that poor people are doing more poorly under reforms, but writing about THAT does not pay. So guess what? Teachers are to blame. They aren't doing something enough. (Well, if they start doing it, then they will be doing it too much. Teachers are to blame, OK?)

    I would write about being in the in the “cage” of being one writer in a “stable” of educational writers, and how the people at the top have an agenda they want all the writers to put forward. So, I say write about those troubling internal conflicts! Write about how the data conflicts with what you are being “asked” to write about! Be Free! Now, some critics might say ”But, but, this will ruin the career of that person!! I say “Pish Tosh, and isn't Freedom worth it?

    I wouldn't know. I think it's worth it if I don't have to suffer for it. I get paid for the sales of the books either way.

    Always your fan, Mr. Peter Greene, Thank you for your blog.