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For America's Public School Success: Human & Social Capital

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By Cheryl S. Williams, Executive Director of the Learning First Alliance (LFA)

At this week's Learning Forward annual conference in Boston, Michael Fullan, professor emeritus, University of Toronto, and his colleague Andy Hargreaves, Thomas More Brennan Chair in the Lynch School of Education, Boston College, showcased the work they've done in examining the role of human, social, and decisional capital in successful schools. 

Fullan and Hargreaves acknowledge that the focus on human capital has come from a business world that measures human capital by the value it adds to a company's net worth and that a vision of human capital in teaching that relies on the concept of human capital in business distorts the fundamental character of what we do when it aims to reduce the price of teaching under a bottom line business model. However, as they both assert, developing human capital in public education is important work and results in the professional capital that's technically sophisticated and difficult and requires a high level of education and ongoing participation in continuous improvement. Developing human capital in any enterprise, but especially in public schooling, is an essential activity if our teachers are to be effective and our students successful. 

But in their research into high performing schools, Fullan and Hargreaves learned that social capital in an educational setting is even more important that human capital because social capital produces more human capital than the reverse. Social capital exists in work places that exhibit high levels of trust, collaboration, collective responsibility, mutual assistance, professional networks and an identity that's tied to the bigger picture and vision for the work being done.

Schools with high social capital are led by principals who set the example of high performance and provide leadership that establishes the culture of continuous improvement and professional development for the teachers in the building. Human capital in leadership is key to developing human capital in the classroom. The ultimate goal, according to Hargreaves and Fullan, is the support of teachers in a career cycle that leads to decisional capital, which is the development of professional judgment that results in high performance for both the teacher and that teacher's students. 

Decisional capital is developed through judgment, case experience, practice, challenge and stretching, and reflection, all of which require time outside the classroom. Teachers in high-performing Finland spend less time with students than teachers anywhere in the world. During time away from students, those professionals confer, reflect, examine new approaches, and take a break from the emotional challenges of the students with whom they work to acquire perspective and insight into their teaching strategies.

Educators with decisional capital are capable and committed to their craft, and it takes time to grow into that professional competency. Early career teachers are committed but less competent, and one challenge we face in the US today is that there are more teachers with one year of experience working in schools than any other time in our history. This, according to Hargreaves and Fullan, is worrying. For large scale school reform, we need to concentrate on the people in the system and insure that our human capital has rigorous, relevant training; our social capital exhibits principled leadership that addresses challenges in a collaborative, trusting environment, and that decisional capital is in place with the retention of highly competent teachers. 

Once again, research proves public education is all about the people who work in the schools and are committed to district, school, and most importantly, student success. Fullan and Hargreaves' research chronicles work that is current in many schools across the country, but not in all schools and decidedly not in enough schools. Their theory of change calls for educators in low performing schools to spend time in districts where human and social capital is high and student achievement reflects that reality. Building social and human capital in all our schools is our collective responsibility and requires bold leadership to support the work of competent professionals and assist those whose performance is lagging to improve. It will take our own personal commitment and human capital to make it happen, so let's get to work.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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