The Key to Improved Performance – Social Capital

September 17th, 2011

I stumbled across a fascinated read today, ‘The Missing Link in School Reform’, which is a response to the film ‘Waiting for Superman’ the 2010 documentary that describes the failure of American public education. ‘The Missing Link in School Reform’ takes an interesting and counter intuitive approach to education reform, and looks at the fact that in trying to improve American public schools, educators, policymakers, and philanthropists are overselling the role of the highly skilled individual teacher and undervaluing the benefits that come from teacher collaborations.

What interested me about this article, and its conclusions, was that they apply not only to teaching/education, but to entrepreneurship, and pretty much any occupation or career.

“In the context of schools, human capital is a teacher’s cumulative abilities, knowledge, and skills developed through formal education and on-the-job experience. For many years, teacher human capital was thought to be attained through a combination of formal education and certification both before entering the profession and throughout the course of a teacher’s career. This has been a boon to the universities that provide such training, but several studies conducted largely by economists have shown little relationship between a teacher’s accumulation of formal education and actual student learning. In our studies, teacher educational attainment similarly shows little effect on improving student achievement…

Social capital, by comparison, is not a characteristic of the individual teacher but instead resides in the relationships among teachers. In response to the question “Why are some teachers better than others?” a human capital perspective would answer that some teachers are just better trained, more gifted, or more motivated. A social capital perspective would answer the same question by looking not just at what a teacher knows, but also where she gets that knowledge. If she has a problem with a particular student, where does the teacher go for information and advice? Who does she use to sound out her own ideas or assumptions about teaching? Who does she confide in about the gaps in her understanding of her subject knowledge? …

In business, social capital has received attention because of its role in creating intellectual resources within a firm.5

Our research shows that social capital is also at work in schools. When a teacher needs information or advice about how to do her job more effectively, she goes to other teachers. She turns far less frequently to the experts and is even less likely to talk to her principal. Further, when the relationships among teachers in a school are characterized by high trust and frequent interaction—that is, when social capital is strong—student achievement scores improve…

Between 2005 and 2007, we followed more than 1,000 fourth- and fifth-grade teachers in a representative sample of 130 elementary schools across the city. We examined one-year changes in student achievement scores in mathematics. That is, we looked at how much each student’s knowledge of mathematics advanced in the year he or she spent with a particular teacher. We also took into account the economic need, attendance, and special education status of a child, because these factors might affect not just the level of student learning but also the rate of learning growth.

We examined several facets of teacher human capital, including experience in the classroom and educational attainment, as predictors of student achievement gains. We also had all teachers respond to a series of classroom scenarios developed and validated at the University of Michigan, which measured each teacher’s ability to instruct children in the logic of mathematics.6 Thus our human capital indicators included teacher education, experience, and ability in the classroom…

Most striking, students showed higher gains in math achievement when their teachers reported frequent conversations with their peers that centered on math, and when there was a feeling of trust or closeness among teachers. In other words, teacher social capital was a significant predictor of student achievement gains above and beyond teacher experience or ability in the classroom. And the effects of teacher social capital on student performance were powerful. If a teacher’s social capital was just one standard deviation higher than the average, her students’ math scores increased by 5.7 percent…

What happens when you combine human and social capital? What if teachers are good at their jobs and also talk to one another frankly and on a regular basis about what they do in math class? If human capital is strong, individual teachers should have the knowledge and skills to do a good job in their own classrooms. But if social capital is also strong, teachers can continually learn from their conversations with one another and become even better at what they do.

Our results in New York City confirmed this expectation. We found that the students of high-ability teachers outperformed those of low-ability teachers, as proponents of human capital approaches to school improvement would predict. More significant were the interactions between human and social capital. Students whose teachers were more able (high human capital) and also had stronger ties with their peers (strong social capital) showed the highest gains in math achievement. Conversely, students of teachers with lower teaching ability (low human capital) and weaker ties with their peers (weak social capital) showed the lowest achievement gains. We also found that even low-ability teachers can perform as well as teachers of average ability if they have strong social capital. Strong social capital can go a long way toward off setting any disadvantages students face when their teachers have low human capital.”

I find the last paragraph and its conclusions very interesting, particularly in their application for other occupations:

  1. Strong human capital + social capital  = outstanding performance
  2. Individuals of lower ability at a task can perform as well those who have average ability with the development of strong social capital.
  3. Want to improve team performance? Encourage increased communication flow/ideas sharing between team members (aka social capital)

Ever wonder why so many amazing businesses come out of Silicon Valley? They effectively combine strong human capital, with social capital. Funny timing, but Steve Blank just wrote about the ‘Pay it Forward Culture’ in Silicon Valley and the fact that everyone is willing to help each other, and share ideas (even with competitors).

The good thing I feel for Australia and entrepreneurship is that we are beginning to see the development of strong social capital in the business community. With the growth of co-working hubs which create networks of entrepreneurs, and encourage interaction and idea sharing (Fishburners & Co-Worka), networking events (such as the Entourage, Silicon Beach & Syd Start amongst others) and mentor driven incubators (like Push Start)much needed social capital development is occuring in Australia. I personally am excited to see how the development of social capital in Australia will, like a tide lifting boats, raise the standard of entrepreneurship.

In the spirit of developing increasing social capital in the Australian entrepreneurship community, if you need to chat to someone about  an idea you have, problem you are trying to solve, business you are running, or simply want to just chat, and bounce ideas, hit me up with an email. Love to help in anyway I can, no strings attached!

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