Nearly everyone involved in the work of improving or reforming education acknowledges the importance of the people working in our schools as perhaps the most critically important lever to improve learning. Even with technological advances, education remains primarily an endeavor driven by teachers, administrators and those in supporting roles in schools. As an extension, the success, mediocrity, or failure of our schools also rides on the qualities, capacities and talents of the people working with our students.
Hard-charging education reformers put a tremendous amount of faith in the ability of “human capital” systems to deliver educators with the abilities we need to dramatically improve our schools. Using strategies related to human resource processes like recruitment, selectivity, performance management (including evaluation), compensation, and dismissal – this “human capital” frame holds that if schools would use theses human resource processes more effectively the result would be a more capable educator workforce. This viewpoint primarily puts the individual educator as the central point where we should focus our attention and work for improvement.
Juxtaposed against the human capital frame is another viewpoint that great educators emerge from collaborative and collegial environments where educators are given the opportunity to learn from each other, plan together, build relationships among staff and students, be involved in key decisions, and work in an environment where they have the tools and resources to succeed. This “social capital” frame holds that it’s not the people that are the problem, it’s the system (or lack thereof) in which educators are working that is the problem.
It’s difficult (at least for me) to take a hard line against either of these views. It is disingenuous to argue that talent and ability doesn’t matter. Further, it is also disingenuous to say our human capital systems in education are anywhere near as effective as they could or should be. Differences do exist in educator quality that can be attributed to the capabilities and talents of individual educators. Failure to acknowledge or address human capital concerns (or the more common tactic of trying to advance some excuse or “red herring” to distract the argument) does little to advance us toward the common goal of a better education for all of our students.
It is equally insincere to argue that the systems and supports in which people work don’t matter. Anyone who has had the experience of working as part of a high quality, high functioning team or organization knows that the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts and that collective capacity trumps individual heroism when it comes to delivering quality on a consistent basis. On the flip side, anyone who has had to work in a dysfunctional environment or under a tyrannical boss knows that bad culture kills productivity and creativity.
Somehow, the debate on improving education in this country has got to reconcile these two ideas of human and social capital. Too often we place them in contrast to one another when we should be considering how they can (and should) be used to compliment each other.
We aren’t going to achieve greatness through a pure reliance on draconian, Kafkaesque systems of individual accountability. We also can’t achieve greatness through the liberal use of some professional Kumbayah circle.
Talent, intelligence, and ability matter. So do connections, belonging, and love.
For the sake of the American education system (and more importantly our children), we’d better figure it out sooner than later.