When people talk about how to improve education, the emphasis is often on capital – space, money, resources – or human capital – effective teachers. However, social capital– the network of social connections that exist between people, and their shared values and norms of behavior, which enable and encourage mutually advantageous social cooperation – is often overlooked. In education, social capital is really just about how educators rely on and support each other. It is built on relationships and resourcefulness. When teachers face challenges, where do they turn? How frequently do teachers collaborate with each other to improve their practice?

The Teaching Channel recently re-surfaced some research out of the University Pittsburgh about the power of “social capital,” which served as a great reminder of the importance of our work at Schools That Can. In 2011, Dr. Carrie Leana shared findings from her research across several school districts including New York City, trying to identify factors contributing to student achievement. In particular, Leana reviewed the impact of some commonly cited factors like teacher quality, expert-driven professional development, and the principal’s role as instructional leader. However, she discovered another powerful factor: social capital.

When inquiring into teachers’ social capital and trying to determine where they seek support, Leana found that teachers were twice as likely to seek out a peer as opposed to a principal or external expert. Moreover, she found that teachers who “reported frequent conversations with their peers that centered on math, and experienced “a feeling of trust or closeness among teachers” had students with higher gains in math achievement. Leana cited examples of effective collaboration that both encourage more conversations and foster trust, like professional learning communities and peer classroom observations.

Additionally, Leana unexpectedly found that principals who invest in building external social capital – “collaborating with people and organizations outside the school” – had higher student achievement in their schools than those who tried to be the sole instructional leader.

At Schools That Can, we take the concept of social capital – collaborating around content and pedagogy, and building a trusting community of educators – beyond school walls. Our national network of schools is dedicated to providing excellent education to underserved students. Within that network, we continue to grow local communities of educators eager to work together to push their practices. We do this by highlighting effective practices in our schools – through Roundtables, Study Tours, and Panels – and by building cross-school learning communities who work together to build solutions. Our programming aims to foster sharing of knowledge and transfer of strategies and skills with the ultimate goal of improving student achievement, much like the teachers in Carrie Leana’s research.

In what ways have you built social capital in your school? In your community? With STC?