The invisible currency in education reform: social capital


Mar 26, 2015

This is the first in a series of blog posts on the intersection of social capital, EdTech, and innovation.

WhoYouKnowWho you know matters. It matters when you go out to get a job; it matters when you are looking for reliable information; it matters when you are trying to learn from others’ successes and mistakes. Indeed, your network even appears to matter when it comes to lifelong earnings. But when you cross this relatively obvious reality with how we operate our K–12 education system, you realize quickly that schools aren’t structured to expand students’ access to powerful networks that could shape their futures, nor are schools focused on instilling the skillsets students need to nurture and capitalize on the networks they have. Schools are intently focused on what students know, not whom they know. A child’s network—his reservoir of social capital and ability to bank on that capital—remains largely determined by the random luck of the family and the circumstances into which that child was born.

We live in a day and age, however, in which we have access to an unprecedented wealth of tools that can connect students to adults, peers, and opportunities previously beyond their reach. With technology as an enabler, we can radically change the course of students’ networks—and the information, opportunities, and identities that a broader and deeper set of human connections can offer. To get there will require greater demand for such tools from schools, community organizations, and parents. It will also require business-model innovations in how we deliver and scale mentoring, coaching, and expert connections through a blend of online and face-to-face modalities.

Particularly as content becomes commoditized, access to networks, expertise, and non-academic supports stand to grow as a core value proposition of the education system. EdTech tools and school models that focus on social capital, then, stand to disrupt some of the traditional institutions and approaches we have witnessed in education. By embracing these disruptive tools, rather than fleeing from them, schools have the potential over time to transform themselves into hubs where students’ networks converge and expand, rather than remaining isolated buildings sealed off from the world of networks and supports beyond their four walls.

With a stronger focus on helping students build social capital, schools and vendors together stand to address chronic challenges that have long plagued the education system. For example, we often lament the human capital crisis in education by citing shortages of high-quality educators. In reality, however, the world offers an abundance of human capital across all sorts of industries; we just haven’t designed a school system or EdTech tools that can tap into that huge reserve. We focus relentlessly on closing the achievement gap to enhance social mobility, yet we ignore gaps in poor and minority students’ access to power and relationships that could engender such mobility. We consider the importance of “real-world” relevance in education, but struggle to connect authentically what happens inside classrooms with the wide range of industries in the real world. These are all structural impediments that we can start to overcome by embracing access to social capital as a key component of a robust and relevant education.

Over the coming months, I’ll be blogging about this missing piece of the education reform conversation, with a particular focus on how technology stands to transform our ability to expand students’ access to social capital. I’ll offer a new classification scheme for entrepreneurs and investors to consider this growth market in a new light. I’ll tackle topics such as why Google Helpouts folded, what entrepreneurs should glean from Robert Putnam’s newest book, Our Kids, and how some states have started to formulate extended learning opportunities far beyond the traditional classroom that allow students to interface with adults in the real world. And I’ll also be highlighting existing organizations that are making inroads into expanding networks across schools, communities, and corporations by using video-based technology, online- coaching platforms, and forging peer-to-peer connections. If you’re engaged in this work, please don’t hesitate to reach out and share how you are going about furthering students’ access to social capital and developing their ability to bank on a reliable and diverse support network as they pursue their dreams and potential.

Stay tuned!

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.

  • Michael Fisher

    As a graduate of private schools, who failed miserably within the public school system as a student and later as a teacher, I now believe that the thing missing piece in public education success is the discussion and valuation of social capital. I anxiously await to read more on this concept.

  • Julia,

    thanks for highlighting this important issue. The role of education in helping students develop relationships and connections that are related to their post-secondary success is something that we (at Big Picture Learning) have been championing for 20 years.

    We’ve had independent researchers looking at longitudinal outcomes of our students->alumni and found that the relationships that they develop with mentors through internship experiences are invaluable – see here –

    It was great to see a recently released research study at Harvard “The Science of Resilience” see here – and here for public policy implications –

    And finally, here’s a piece that I wrote on this very topic last year entitled, “”I Want to Follow Your Footsteps,” — Schools and Social Capital” –

    At Big Picture Learning we have 20 years of focusing on helping students develop this vital element to future success and have been working to develop software applications that make it possible to spread our approach far wider.

  • Julia— this is such an important issues and I am so glad you are taking this on. There are many aspects to this. One I think about how important it is to consider the behavior and values of employers in assessing the availability of social capital. There is way too much evidence that resumes with names that indicate that they might be African-American or latino are less likely to get a call back even with the exact same set of skills. So the question arises will schools have to become anti-racist organizations in order to overcome the bias in the world of employers? — Thanks for your leadership, Chris

  • Wes Sawyer

    I’m looking forward to reading your future posts. I work in a school where kids don’t have much social capital. It can be very challenging at times trying to convince them that what we teach them will be critically important for their future. Good mentoring programs are definitely needed. For a long time now I have felt that the disconnect between k-12 and the working world has been problematic for an increasing number of our students.

  • martha parker



    in NH as part of the Governor’s initiative called A Year of STEM directed at K-12 students, we recognize the critical importance of the social capital piece. I remember at Harvard someone telling me that the hidden magic was not simply great professors but the networks and connections created – as well as the self confidence that grew from these experiences.

    In NH one of our aims is to provide mentoring, job shadowing and interactions with the business/professional community so that a student at high school graduation feels comfortable and confident that they can take their place among their peers of all social strata.

    Dr. Martha Parker-Magagna

  • We have been working on something similar in the UK. It is an important issue but the major problem appears to be the dysfunctional aspects of some schools. Unless the school culture can behave ‘normally’ it is difficult to see how such initiatives can work. And therein lies the challenge!

  • Brandi Parsons

    I appreciate that you are reaching beyond the achievement gap and pointing to the problems of minorities and poverty and how with some innovation, we can be bringing them the expertise of the world.