The school for social capital?

The New American Academy, serving poor non-white  youth in Crown Heights, Brooklyn aims to reinvent education, but it may well be a strong contender for  building social capital as well.

Joel Klein, Former Chancellor,New York City Department of Education has written:

“The New American Academy [NAA] is an innovative, potentially very powerful way to provide education to children. It is both brilliant and scalable and holds out the hope of changing K-12 education in major ways.

This is a big idea, something we desperately need if we are going to significantly change the educational outcomes for our children.”

Educationally, NAA started in 2010 as a public school with kindergarten and first graders.  Each year they will add another grade until they reach fifth grade.  They assign 4 teachers to 60 students who they remain with from grades K-5. The teachers are compensated and promoted based on performance their 60-student flock as well as on peer and supervisory review.  OneMaster teacher (paid $120,000 annually) helps supervise the overall direction among 3 less senior teachers who rotate among 3-4 tables.

The school was founded by a  Shimon Waronker, “who grew up speaking Spanish in South America, became a U.S. Army intelligence officer, became an increasingly observant Jew, studied at yeshiva, joined the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, became a public schoolteacher and then studied at the New York City Leadership Academy, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the former New York Schools chancellor, Joel Klein, founded to train promising school principal candidates.” While a doctoral student in Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program, he conceived the NAA educational approach based on the elite Phillips Exeter Academy and in 2009 won Harvardʼs Phi Delta Kappa Award for Innovation in Education.

Waronker, a Hasidic Jew, who sports a long bears and wears a black  suit,  black hat and a velvet kippa, seems an improbable leader for a non-white inner city school.  But he gained credibility after reviving the failing extremely violent Jordan Mott School  in the depressed South Bronx and overcoming parental wariness ultimately to gain the trust of parents and students.

In principle, the school seems unusually well-designed to promote social capital building among the students and teachers.  There is a high mix of teamwork, the students get a lot of practice in honing civic skills (like making presentations) and sit around larger tables participating in teacher-led group discussions.

“The teachers are not solitary. They are constantly interacting as an ensemble. Students can see them working together and learning from each other. The students are controlled less by uniform rules than by the constant informal nudges from the teachers all around.” [David Brooks]

“He has a grand theory to transform American education…. The American education model, he says, was actually copied from the 18th-century Prussian model designed to create docile subjects and factory workers. He wants schools to operate more like the networked collaborative world of today.” [Brooks]

Brooks says NAA “does a tremendous job of nurturing relationships. Since people learn from people they love, education is fundamentally about the relationship between a teacher and student. By insisting on constant informal contact and by preserving that contact year after year, The New American Academy has the potential to create richer, mentorlike or even familylike relationships for students who are not rich in those things.”

The school is important for at least two reasons.  Much social capital research and socialization research demonstrates that “as the twig is bent, so grows the tree”.  These early years are a critical time to teach the soft non-cognitive skills that are increasingly valuable in today’s society like teamwork, building relationships, negotiating differences, etc.  So this early experience in building social capital, if successful, could be an important model.

Second, we are increasingly discovering in our own research that working class kids (white and non-white) are increasingly falling through society’s cracks and are falling further and further behind their counterparts from more affluent and educated backgrounds.  While it is still to be proven, NAA seems to offer promise for what schools could do to start to close these gaps among kids who happened to be born on the wrong side of the tracks.

I look forward to the research that compares the educational and social outcomes of kids attending NAA against their matched counterparts who don’t.

Read David Brooks’ “The Relationship School” in the NYT (3/23/12)

Read “60 First Graders, 4 Teachers, One Loud Way to Learn” (NYT, 1/11/2011) [Slide show here.]


5 responses to “The school for social capital?

  1. Yes, the real test will come when we look at outcomes. Of course, we’ll have to make sure we have good data – what kind of sample population is this really, how much of the effects can be isolated.

    Dalton, I’m excited to find your blog. I’m a teacher teacher who has always been profoundly interested in class dynamics, especially in how they play out in schools. I write a good deal about this stuff at my own blog. I’m generally an education reform skeptic because I see it as mostly missing the prime drivers of human and social capital, subsequently pretending that more can be done than is reasonable in the traditional classroom setting.

    It is my belief that the problems of the poor are just so much more vast and systemic, and that they need a much more serious and organized government response.

    Last thought…more of a question: for years now I have been using the terms human and social capital as the practical framework for human agency (Human: internal resources: genetic endowment, cognition, learning, skills, language, etc.; Social: external resources: environmental quality, parenting, language spoken, emotional nourishment, neighborhood safety, libraries, etc.) However, I have recently come to understand that social capital as a term has a much more limited definition, referring more specifically to network interactions. Question: This definition seems unnecessarily limiting in a human development context, especially when looking at the interplay of SES/class, environment and education. Is there a more expansive understanding of the term social capital that might be more akin to my use, or is there another vocabulary I am missing?

    Thanks, and I’m looking forward to reading more!
    – Eli

    • Eli,

      I’m Tom, not Dalton.

      But by social capital, I mean the value (positive and negative) of social networks, both to those in the networks and those outside the networks. Examples of benefits to those in the networks are that social connections (usually weaker ties) help you get jobs. Examples of benefits outside the network are that in communities with denser social networks, schools work better, there is less crime, government is more responsive and less corrupt, and people are happier and healthier (even if you yourself are not in those networks). Social trust is a close correlate of social networks because the social networks keep people honest and reduce any incentive to cheat others, since one’s negative reputation spreads fast. For more on social capital, see:

  2. Ah, Tom, sorry. So this appears to be the standard usage of the term. I’d better find a new term for what I would argue is a more comprehensive view of what might be described as one’s “external leverage”, that is, everything in one’s environment that engenders human capital. I find the network social capital usage to be rather inadequate in accounting for the wide variety of the factors involved in building human capital, and thus of limited use in developing a framework for understanding and thinking about human agency. The emphasis seems to be on quantity of networks, and the existence of a network itself, as opposed to the quality of human interaction and specific skill-building, such as language use or emotional regulation. For instance, among low-SES individuals, you might have a child born into a home with toxic lead paint on the walls, a mother who screams at him. This is going to have a profound effect on his level of human capital, and yet by describing it in terms of presence or quality of networks seems largely beside the point. But thank you so much for your insight..

    • Eli,

      Undoubtedly it is not simply a matter of quantity. Mary Waters (Sociology, Harvard), CeCe Rouse and others have done work on poor areas in New Orleans post-Katrina and found in the short-term (but not the longer-term) that in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, more ties was worse for one’s mental health since they typically connected one with others in need and placed greater demands on one. The social capital literature does distinguish different kinds of ties (strong ties — close friends) vs. weak ties (nodding acquaintances) and bridging (ties to someone unlike you on a key social dimension), bonding (ties to others like you) and linking (ties to someone of a different SES). The latter may be closest to what you are thinking of. In general, social ties are good for lots of outcomes (health, information flow, contacts, happiness, etc.) but there certainly are exceptions to the rule. You might be interested in reading Nick Christakis’/James Fowler’s newish book “Connected” which also talks about social contagion through networks and has other examples (obesity, smoking, etc.) where social ties to others who have bad habits or are unhealthy can have negative influences upon you.

  3. I see what you mean. In my work with poor students, the extent to which children adopt negative normative behavior is highly determinative of negative life outcomes. So, in disadvantaged communities, where there is more susceptibility to negative norms (either through poorly developed human capital or the simple presence of debilitating risks such as crime, health issues, etc.), increased exposure to negative social capital would lower their human capital.

    But I suppose what I’m interested in is a vocabulary that incorporates the social, networked dimension with the physical, practical nature of disadvantage, such as (for instance) disaster recovery, or crime, or the other ways in which poverty presents a limitation of capital (the flip-side being wealth’s conferring its own advantage). Yet network learning is only one piece of a larger, dynamic process of development that arises from multiple environmental structures. Not to downplay its importance, however, and I will definitely check out “Connected”.

    Maybe what I’m looking for though, is better found in the concept of cultural capital. I’ve noticed that I should probably read Pierre Bourdieu. Ultimately, my interest is in developing the key components that go into an individual’s building of positive human capital, so as to maximize in our youth their individual agency and sense of self-efficacy. I worry that without a comprehensive picture of how these pieces all come together, we’ll be stuck without a grasp of what the primary levers are. What I’ve seen in education is a fundamental failure to come to terms with this basic process of human development (and a subsequent lack of meaningful policy responses). What I’d like in language is the ability to efficiently conceptualize this picture through a reliably coherent terminology.

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