Universities, museums, and other organizations tend to form educational partnerships with the schools that have the most social capital, not those that have the greatest needs.
I remember the moment when I became certain that my career would be devoted to improving educational opportunities and outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I was 16 years old at a summer college-preparation program reading Jonathan Kozol’s then-recently published book, Savage Inequalities. Every chapter profiled obvious, widespread, and persistent disparities among schools, leaving me outraged and haunted. About one school in the Bronx, Kozol wrote, “The library is a tiny, windowless and claustrophobic room [with] approximately 700 books . . . The school, I am told, has 26 computers for its 1,300 children. There is one small gym . . . recess, however, is not possible because there is no playground . . . The school, I am told, is 90% black and Hispanic . . . in a 6th grade social studies class the walls are bare of words or decorations” (Kozol, 1992, p. 87).
While some have argued that resources have small and inconsistent effects on student outcomes, they are usually referring to “real resources,” typically measured in dollars, with the outcome measured as test-score performance (Hanushek, 1997). When a broader class of resources and outcomes are considered — along with how monetary resources are actually spent — their importance for fostering equal educational opportunities seems undeniable (Ouchi, 2003). Yet, in the absence of a revolutionary change in structural inequalities that determine school resources — such as funding formulas based largely on property tax values — what options do principals or district administrators have for providing more equal educational opportunities?
Do school partnerships offer a solution?
One popular solution for addressing resource inequalities has been codified into law for more than 30 years. In 1988, five years after the galvanizing Nation at Risk report, the 100th U.S. Congress passed the Educational Partnerships Act, whose described purpose was:
to encourage the creation of alliances between public elementary and secondary schools or institutions of higher education and representatives of the private sector in order to apply the resources of the private and nonprofit sectors of the community to the needs of the elementary and secondary schools. (U.S. Educational Partnership Act, 1988)
In other words, the act promoted school partnerships as one solution to inequalities in educational opportunity.
Following the 1988 act, the partnership movement was renewed in 2001 with the authorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The law’s strict accountability stipulations highlighted partnerships with the private sector as a means of helping schools achieve Adequate Yearly Progress. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Education also began to fund 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants, which would provide after-school enrichment and family support activities through partnerships. Indeed, the promotion of school partnerships is one reason private and nonprofit organizations have come to play an increasingly pervasive role in the education sector (Honig, 2004).
On one hand, encouraging school partnerships seems like a reasonable thing to do. If schools do not have resources, then they should secure resources from people and organizations that do. On the other hand, this assumes that the schools most in need of resources will be the ones most likely to receive them. Unfortunately, research across a variety of sectors suggests the opposite: When organizations start out with more resources, they tend to continue accruing more resources (Arthur, 1990). In other words, the rich get richer — or, as the iconic songstress Billie Holiday once put it, “Them that’s got shall have.” The same holds true for social capital resources, which come from partner relationships.
- Podcast with Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell on Research Minutes
Partner resources as school social capital
The term social capital often is used to describe the ways in which individuals’ relationships grant them access to resources and opportunities they would not otherwise have. This might include access to insider knowledge about job opportunities, a gain in trust and prestige that comes from having someone well-respected provide a recommendation, or the receiving of financial support from someone with monetary resources. In other words, social capital refers to cognitive, social, or material resources — insider knowledge, trust and prestige, or financial support, respectively — made available through relationships with others (Bourdieu, 1986; Coleman, 1988; Lin, 2001). Further, social capital doesn’t just refer to resources that individuals use when relating to other individuals. It also describes the ways organizations gain resources from their relationships with other organizations, as in the case of school partnerships. So, for example, a school might receive cognitive resources, such as expertise to support teacher professional development, through its relationship with a local university. A school might also raise its profile in the community by partnering with the office of a prestigious local politician, or it might gain access to practice facilities for its sports teams by partnering with a nearby recreational center.
Researchers who study social capital tend to agree that access to social capital often depends on the structure of one’s social network (Granovetter, 1985). For example, people may be related to each other in an X-shaped pattern, in which the person in the center has a separate relationship with each of the four people at the tips — in this case, all resources must flow through the actor at the center. Or those four people might be arranged in a square, with each person interacting with the two others closest to them — in this case, resources are more free-flowing, because any actor can pass resources to other actors. In short, depending on how relationships are arranged, individuals or organizations will have different levels of access to social capital. Think, for example, about a five-member grade team in which teachers communicate only with the grade’s team leader but not directly each other (the X-shape) compared to teachers each directly communicating with two other teachers who also are communicating with each other (the box shape).
Finally, research into social capital also suggests that the structure of the social network (or who’s connected to whom and how) can be more important for access to resources than the characteristics of the particular people or organizations involved (Giddens, 1979). In other words, it might not be whether a school has a significant need for resources and support that determines its access to resources through social capital. Instead, what matters most may be the ways in which schools are connected to their potential partners based on the structure of the existing network among schools and partners. This is exactly what I set out to examine in a recent study of partnerships among 211 New York City public high schools and 1,098 partner organizations (Bridwell-Mitchell, 2017).
Social network structure and school access to social capital
The six-year study of New York City public high school partnerships, focusing on data from 1999 to 2005, sought to understand what factors made it more likely for high schools to have one or more partnerships with organizations such as universities, businesses, museums, community organizations, nonprofits, city agencies, and others.
I found that partnerships did not tend to go to the schools with the greatest needs. This included needs such as having more experienced teachers, strengthening the curriculum, exposing students to career options, or providing academic, social, or extracurricular supports to students with limited access to health care, social services, and recreational facilities. Rather, partnerships tended to go to schools that had less acute needs. That is, partnerships were more likely to go to schools with fewer students from low-income backgrounds, greater numbers of experienced teachers, and locations that exposed students to a wider range of possible occupations. Importantly, the one school factor that had the greatest influence on whether a school had partnerships was the presence of a new principal — schools with new principals were 27% more likely to have partners. Still, though, no school characteristic, including having a new principal, was as predictive as the social network structure that linked the school with its potential partners.
The structure of the social network can be more important for access to resources than the characteristics of the particular people or organizations involved.
To understand the role of network structure, imagine that representatives from the high schools and potential partner organizations were to attend a large, one-day matching event, where they hope to form partnerships. And let’s say that one of the schools at the event has a high-need student population, a large number of novice teachers, and little funding for academic and social supports or extracurricular activities. Further, let’s say that some of the organizations at the event have and are willing to share precisely the kinds of resources the school needs — attendees include a university-based teaching program that could provide staff development, a community organization that could help engage families or provide social supports, and a local business that could fund after-school activities.
In theory, the school and those three perfect partners will find each other — ushered to the same spot on the dance floor as if directed by what the economist Adam Smith called an “invisible hand.” In reality, however — and perhaps unsurprisingly for anyone who has ever attended a large workshop or conference — whom you meet and interact with at such an event will depend substantially on social networks. When you arrive, for example, you might spot a colleague you know and chat for a while; then, a colleague of his will come by and your friend will introduce you to her. This pattern of existing relationships may or may not lead you to the one person you most want or need to meet.
In the real-life case of schools and partners, school representatives would be even less likely to meet up with their perfect partners, since they probably won’t all be at the same event, they’re probably located in completely different parts of the city, and they may not know people in common. In this case, how might a school form partnerships? The six-year study of NYC high schools suggests four network features are especially important: (1) having strong prior relationships, (2) being within easy reach of partners, (3) not having to compete for the same partner, and (4) having partners tied to many other partners and schools.
Prior relationships. Imagine a school representative at the hypothetical partnering event. It would be easiest for the representative to meet and match with organizations the school had partnered with in the past. The school representative would know what the partner had to offer, there already would be a working relationship, and the strengths and weaknesses of the partnership would be known. This helps explain why, in the real case of New York City high schools from 1999 to 2005, having had a prior relationship with a partner was the single greatest factor related to schools having partnerships in the present. The effect of having prior ties was more than 40 times greater than the effect of having a new principal.
Being within easy reach. If the school representative at the hypothetical matching event did not have a prior relationship with a sought-after partner, the representative might look for another contact who could make an introduction. For example, the school representative might know someone at another school who had worked with the partner, or one of the school’s existing partners might have a relationship with a sought-after partner. So, the match would be harder to make if the school does not have a shared contact with a partner or has to go through multiple contacts (like asking a friend of a friend to introduce you to their other friend). New York high schools that were central enough in the network to reach partners through just one contact were more likely to have partnerships. This effect was more than 30 times greater than the effect of having a new principal.
Not competing for partners. Now, imagine the school representative wanted to ask other representatives about partners, but those other representatives at the event wanted to make a match with the exact same partners. The result would be many competing requests for the time and attention of the same potential sought-after partners, and partners might not be able to accommodate all requests. This same situation occurred for New York City high schools. Having schools with many of the same partners in common is associated with lower odds of partnering — a negative effect more than 20 times greater than the positive effect of having a new principal.
Densely tied partners. One last-ditch strategy the school representative might use to make a match could be to simply ask around to see if anyone else at the event knew the sought-after partner. This would work best if many others at the event had a relationship with the sought-after partner and if those people also had relationships with each other. This way, almost anyone the school representative talked to would be a pathway to the partner. In New York City, schools that were connected through a dense network of other schools and partners were more likely to form partnerships. For example, if a school had five partners and four of them were connected, then the fifth partner becoming connected would increase the school’s odds of forming additional partnerships by 27.13%. This is nearly the same as the effect of having a new principal.
Overcoming structural inequities in school partnerships
School partnerships are appealing in part because they draw on a fundamental American belief that if people assert their agency, choice, and individual interests, they can overcome any structural disadvantages they face. This ethic plays out in the assumption that if schools and districts only work hard enough to secure additional resources from nearby civic groups, businesses, colleges, professional associations, foundations, and other organizations, they can make up for inequities in education funding and support. Indeed, prior research on partnerships has shown that it is important for school personnel to actively plan for, solicit, and manage partnerships (Sanders, 2014). So, too, do the findings from my own study show that having a new principal — one possible indicator of motivation — is associated with schools being more likely to form partnerships. To some extent, then, motivation and agency do matter.
Individuals and organizations do have choices and can exercise agency, but they do not have access to all possible choices because they exist within a structure that determines what choices and opportunities are available.
However, what many education policies overlook — especially those based on economic assumptions about how markets work — is that outcomes are almost always the result of choice within constraint (Giddens, 1979). In other words, individuals and organizations do have choices and can exercise agency, but they do not have access to all possible choices because they exist within a structure that determines what choices and opportunities are available.
In the case of school resources, the structural constraints include not just state and local funding mechanisms (Baker & Corcoran, 2012) but also the structure of the networks in which schools accumulate social capital. School personnel can and should make their best efforts to secure resources through partnerships — and doing so will make some difference — but the success of these efforts will likely depend on their existing relationships with other schools and partners. Ultimately, the New York partnership study shows that the schools most likely to develop partnerships and have the best chances of securing resources are schools that already have partners, are in easy reach of partners within the network, are in a dense local network, or already have resources. This means that, for partnership policies to work, state and local education agencies will need to do more to provide support to the schools that start out in a disadvantaged position.
Even approaches now considered “best practice,” such as providing schools with vetted lists of potential partners, may not be sufficient. In fact, providing all schools with the same list of partners may simply intensify the competition, in which some schools win and other schools lose. Instead, states and districts may need to provide more targeted support by choosing proactively to work with those schools that currently have the fewest partners and the greatest resource needs. Such schools may benefit greatly from funding, technical assistance, and support from specialized staff who can help them become more effective at soliciting, managing, and maintaining partnerships. It might also be important for district leaders to help those schools broker relationships with partners and with other schools that have had success with partnering. In the absence of such efforts, partnership policies meant to alleviate inequalities in educational opportunities may unintentionally perpetuate them.
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Citation: Bridwell-Mitchell, E.N. (2019). Them that’s got? How school partnerships can perpetuate inequalities. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (8), 32-36.
For more on partnerships and inequity, listen to Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell’s interview with Research Minutes.