01/24/2014 03:21 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2014

"I Want to Follow Your Footsteps," -- Schools and Social Capital

I open my mailbox and find an envelope addressed to my wife, handwritten in an almost illegible scrawl:

Dear Dr. Leigh Needleman,

I am very interested in Neuroscience. I was wondering if you could send me your dissertation papers. I know that sounds crazy, but I really want to read that 200 page essay. I want to follow your footsteps and become a neuroscientist when I grow up.


[Name redacted]

The letter, from my 11-year-old nephew arrived without warning. He said that he had seen "something that made him wonder about how his brain worked," and that made him realize that he was really interested in "learning more about the brain," so he wrote the letter to ask if he could learn from his aunt. Even at 11-years-old, he felt comfortable and confident reaching out directly to a scientist who works in one of the most highly regarded labs at Harvard to learn more about her research and career path.

Like my nephew, I was lucky enough to be born into a middle class family and benefited from growing up in a relatively affluent community. Although I lived in Andover, MA throughout my childhood, many of my most formative learning experiences occurred just over the border in neighboring Lawrence, MA, a city with a rich history as the cradle of the industrial revolution in the U.S., and strong community assets, but also a legacy of socioeconomic struggle and deprivation.

As I came of age, one of the privileges that I enjoyed was being surrounded by adults who were engaged in a wide variety of professional careers. I (and my school mates) came in frequent contact with parents, relatives, neighbors, parents' friends and other members of the community who were doctors, engineers, lawyers, designers, scientists, IT specialists, marketing managers, professors, architects, CEOs, dentists, etc. By comparison, most of my peers growing up a few miles away in Lawrence, did not benefit from nearly so many of these connections.

Spending time in Andover and Lawrence as I progressed through middle school, high school and then during the summers when I was back from college, gave me insight into the ways in which this inequity played out in the life trajectories of young people. While my friends from Andover were able to engage in summer jobs and internships secured through families' extended social and professional networks, my peercs from Lawrence had much greater difficulty gaining access to these opportunities. These initial exploratory adventures into the world of work, often indirectly set in motion cascades of events that influenced longer-term career pathways. In agreement with my own personal observation, a variety of research studies indicate that most children formulate initial career interests based on specific individual experiences and connections. Furthermore, a significant portion of all employment seekers land a job through a direct or indirect social connection.

The benefit of the connections afforded by growing up in an affluent community can be described as "Social Capital" which Wikipedia defines as:

The expected collective or economic benefits derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups...the core idea [is] that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a university education (cultural capital or human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so do social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups.

In everyday speak, those with the most social capital might be described as members of the "old boy network." When I first heard about the Big Picture Learning approach, one of the things which attracted and inspired me was the idea that students learning experiences in and out of school could be deliberately structured to break down this complex network of social hierarchy and afford opportunities for children who were not born into such privilege to gain entry and forge lasting meaningful connections with mentors in a wide variety of professions.

As an Advisor at the Met High School in Providence, and Internship Coordinator at the Met Sacramento, I worked with countless students on the processes of interest exploration, identification of potential internship sites, and the drafting of perfect cover letters to "woo" prospective mentors. Over the course of time, and through substantial trial and error and trial again, our students were able to develop the skills and experiences necessary to create their own social capital. Longitudinal studies of Big Picture Learning alumni continue to elucidate the value of these highly transferrable skills.

Far too many voices in education reform are still fixated on the idea that the best way to improve "student outcomes" is to find a way to get teachers to be more efficient and effective at force-feeding esoteric academic content so that students are able to regurgitate in the form of improved scores on standardized tests. Particularly in recent years, many of the young teachers entering the education system with the greatest social capital are slotted into schools in communities, which could stand to benefit tremendously. However, in far too many of the schools where they are placed, the myopic focus on delivering high test scores, to the exclusion of the development of the relationships and skills that would increase students' social capital, is an irrevocably lost opportunity.

As they come of age in an affluent suburb of northern New Jersey, my nephew and his peers will continue to have easy and direct connections to a wide variety of highly successful professionals. However, if we wish the students just a few miles away at Ironbound Academy at East Side High School in Newark, NJ to benefit from similar connections, then we must not limit our efforts to standardized test preparation, but must also continue to focus our efforts on developing students' ability to create social capital.


Author's Note: At Big Picture Learning, we have conducted a number of longitudinal studies to examine this phenomenon. We continue to work with Dr. Karen Arnold to better understand the ways in which the unique relationships and connections that our students develop influence their life trajectories. Dr. Arnold is currently working on research which will be published later this year documenting her findings.