Through Investments in Social Capital
Pedro A. Noguera, Ph.D.
Because I spend a lot of time in urban schools, I've become fairly adept at discerning how the aesthetic of the physical surroundings and the subtitles of interactions between adults and children relate to the character of a particular school and the cultural norms that operate within. The lighting of hallways, the cleanliness of restrooms, the positioning and demeanor of secretaries in the front office, the absence or prevalence of greenery on the playground; these are just some of the signs I take note of to obtain insights into the culture and atmosphere of a particular school. For sure, I learn more from my conversations with teachers, administrators and students, and from my visits to classrooms or the school cafeteria, but the initial observations are often the most telling and informative.
Two recent visits to urban schools - one a large high school, the other a small elementary school - provide examples of how significant first impressions can be. These examples also provide insights into the role of social capital in relationships between parents and school personnel, and between urban schools and the communities that they serve.
Who counts, who doesn't: social capital and the uneven relationship between parent and principal at urban schools.
I had been contacted by the principal of a large urban high school in the San Francisco Bay Area who wanted to discuss her strategic plan for reforming the school which she planned on submitting to the School Board for review that evening. I arrived at the high school in the late afternoon just as school was letting out. As I parked and walked toward the front office, I noticed groups of students casually milling around the front of the building. It was one of the few sunny and warm days we had had in the month of January, and it felt good to be outdoors. Some kids dressed in athletic gear moved across the parking lot quickly, with a clear sense of direction, and appeared to be on their way to practice. Most of the students appeared to be hanging out in small groups throughout the campus. Most seemed engaged in light conversation, and the occasional burst of laughter suggested to me that, for the moment at least, things were calm on this Thursday afternoon.
About five minutes into my conversation with the school principal - an African American woman in her early 40s - we were interrupted by one of her Assistant Principals, a Caucasian man in his mid to late 50s. His furrowed brow conveyed a look of deep concern upon his weathered face. Interrupting our conversation, he informed the principal that a large group was in his office demanding to see her immediately. They were there to protest the decision she had made earlier in the day to suspend a student who had been fighting with another student. He explained that they sought an audience with the principal to explain their daughter's side of the conflict.
The principal responded by saying "Tell them I can't see them now, but that if the girl hit the other student, she's out for three days. Period." By the troubled look on the Assistant Principal's face it was evident that the principal's response was of little help to him. He informed her that the student claimed she had been attacked, and only struck back at her assailants in self defense. Again, the principal was dismissive. "It doesn't matter. If you hit another person you're outa here. If they need to talk to me about it, tell them they can wait, but its gonna be at least an hour."
As she turned to me to resume our conversation about her plan, I asked her what students were expected to do if they found themselves in a situation where they felt compelled to defend themselves. I confessed to her that as a parent I instructed my own children to defend themselves if they were attacked and no adults were present to intervene. With the Assistant gone she smiled and confided "I met with these folks earlier today, and let me tell you, the momma is worse than the daughter. She probably wants to beat them girls up herself. If I see her she'll just get in my face and start to hollering. I really don't need that. Sure, I think that self defense is legitimate at times, but I know when I'm dealing with problem people, and this girl and her momma have serious problems."
The second incident occurred at an urban elementary school where I had been invited by the principal to speak to her teachers about expectations for African American children. The principal, a white woman in her mid 50s, contacted me because she was under pressure from central administration in the school district to raise reading test scores. She wanted me to speak to the faculty about their expectations toward African American children because she believed "these teachers don't think these kids can learn".
I arrived at the school at about 8:30 am, parked in the lot out front, and walked to the main office. As I entered the building I was greeted by the principal who was standing with a broad smile on her face in the main entrance. She extended her hand and told me how glad she was that I had taken the time to visit her school. Just as she was about to launch into the issues that had prompted my visit, three girls - Latinas who appeared to be 10 or 11 years of age - entered the building laughing playfully with each other. At the moment of their arrival the principal stopped mid sentence to confront the girls. "Young ladies! Is that the way we carry ourselves in the halls when class is in session? I do believe you're tardy, aren't you?" The girls nodded sheepishly, and as one attempted to speak to explain her tardiness to the principal, she was immediately cut off. "I don't want to hear why you are late. I want to see you walk quietly into the office to get a late pass. Your parents can send me a note explaining why you are late."
Just as she finished her sentence, a well dressed woman in her mid 40s entered the front door. From the look on her face it was evident that she was accompanying the three girls. It was also immediately clear that she was not at all happy about the scolding that was in progress as she entered, and her face revealed her displeasure toward principal. Upon noticing the woman and immediately recognizing her as a parent of one of the girls, the principal abruptly changed her tone of voice and facial expression. Her frown melted into a smile, and the sternness in her voice transformed into a warm, though phony greeting. "Good morning. I was just telling the girls that they have to use their inside voices when they enter the school building because classes are in session." Then, turning to the girls with the same warm and friendly tone of voice, the principal continued, "Girls, since your mother is here you won't need a late pass. So hurry off to class, you don't want to be too late." The parent did not return the smile. Instead, she nodded her head with a false smile that seemed to connote her displeasure and spoke directly to the girls. "Come on, I don't want you to be late for your class either, and I've got to get to work". The parent then shot a quick glance of disgust at the principal, shaking her head as if the very sight of her was distasteful. As the group left, the principal turned to me, and said "That's just some of what I deal with all day, every day, around here. I'm the authority figure and not everyone's comfortable with the rules, but we have to have 'em." She then led me to the teacher's lounge for our first meeting of the day.
These two vignettes provide profound insights into the ways in which cultural capital (Bourdieu 1985) influences the character of interactions between school officials and the parents they serve; a phenomenon that has been well documented by scholars such as Annette Lareau (1990) Ann Ferguson(1995), and Michelle Fine (1993). These interactions also illustrate how urban public schools have the potential to serve as either sources of negative or positive social capital (Waquant 1998). In the first case, a school rule - prohibition against assaulting another student - is applied with rigidity and without regard to mitigating circumstances based on the principal's belief that the student and her mother have "serious problems". The vague reference to problems in this instance seems to mean that they possess a hostile attitude, that their behavior is aggressive, and irrational. According to the principal who has the power to determine how this situation will be handled, such people have serious problems, and consequently, both child and parent are in need of discipline by the rules.
The character of this interaction also reveals the degree of social distance between school official and the parent - a separation that may be based on differences in class and social status, as well as differences in roles. As an outsider in this situation who had not met the girl, her mother or family, I immediately assumed that principal would only behave in such a perfunctory manner if the parent and child were poor. Given what I know about the school - the racial and socio-economic composition of its students - and given that the matter in contention concerns a fight between two students, I assume the parent is not only low income, but also probably African American. I draw this conclusion because in my many visits to urban schools I have witnessed numerous occasions in which parents, especially African Americans and recent immigrants, have been treated with disregard and disrespect by school officials. This pattern of treatment is also well documented in the research on relations between parents and urban schools (Comer 1981; Epstein 1991; Fine 1993) Sometimes the affront is blatant: a dismissive explanation of a rule or policy, a or even a direct insult. More often, the disrespect is less obvious and more nuanced taking the form of a condescending bit of advice, or less than prompt response to a request for help.
My assumption about the parent is confirmed when I encounter the group (parent, child, and relatives) as I leave the principal's office. Agitated by the long wait and the sense that they have been wronged by the school rules, the family sits impatiently waiting for the principal in the adjoining office until our meeting is over. Without knowing their net worth or income, their clothing and appearance, speech and demeanor, convey the habbitus (Bourdieu 1988) that I typically associate with lower class, inner-city, African Americans. The fact that the principal walks past the group without acknowledging their presence as she walks me to the door is further evidence that in her eyes these people don't "count" in an important way; they have "problems" and the principal feels completely justified in her resolve to deal sternly with both student and parent.
Cheryl Harris (1993) has argued that physical attributes which signify membership to a particular race and class interact in significant ways with rights and interests related to property and material assessments of individual worth. In a society that has historically been characterized by rigid racial stratification (Omi and Wanant 1986; Fredrickson 1981), and in which whiteness has served as a primary signifier of privilege because it has been utilized to limit access to economic and political capital (Roediger 1991; Ignatiev 1995), blackness and "coloredness" have historically served as negative social referents and been accorded negative value. When blackness is combined with membership in the lower class, the value of an individual or group is even further diminished. (1) It is not immediately clear how these factors may have influenced the principal's perception of this parent and child, however, it can not be presumed that because both parties are black that such racially informed judgments are not being made (Frazier, 1942; Rist, 1973; Hall, 1990).
This interaction between the principals and the parents at these two schools also exemplifies how urban public schools can operate as a source of either "negative" or "positive" social capital (Waquant 1998; Gariulo and Beassi 1997; Bourdieu and Waquant, 1992). Drawing on Bourdieu's concept of social capital (1986), which he defines as "the sum total of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual (or a group) by virtue of being enmeshed in a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition" (1986:248), it is possible to conceive of schools as public institutions and social resources which have the potential of generating and developing social capital for a community. The forms of social capital produced at urban schools can either be negative - because they serve to maintain and reproduce the marginality of inner-city residents - or positive - because they provide the forms of cultural capital valued in the broader society and economy and support the formation of social networks that promote the interests of inner-city residents.
A key factor determining which form of social capital will be produced is the nature of the relationship that exist between the school - and the individuals that work there, and the community - including, but not limited to, the parents of the children enrolled. Where connections between school and community are weak, urban public schools are more likely to operate as negative social capital. This is because it is typically the case that the personnel at most urban public schools do not reside within the communities they serve, and social barriers related to differences in race, culture and class, can create a tremendous gulf between school and community (Noguera 1996; Haymes 1995). This separation between school and community can reinforce or contribute to the development of biases among the outsider professionals who come to see the poor children, their families and the communities which they serve as deficient, dysfunctional and even hopeless. Evidence that this has occurred may be seen in the extent to which low academic performance is normalized, the extent to which teachers are evaluated in relation to the academic outcomes of their students, or the degree to which violence within the school is perceived as a "natural" environmental condition. Given that such characteristics are common to many urban public schools (Anyon 1997; Payne 1986; Maeroff 1988) - Waquant's contention that urban schools like other public services in the inner-city are a symptomatic feature of "America's racialized urban core where there is a dearth of core organizations necessary to contribute to the community's functioning and well-being."(1998:28) helps to explain why many urban public schools operate as negative social capital.
Furthermore, such schools generate negative social capital because they contribute to the problems of the community by deepening the marginalization of the children and families they serve. Various authors have argued that certain norms, customs and traits which may have efficacy and value in one context, actually prove to be detrimental and counterproductive in another context. According to Waquant "...the same property may take on a different value and have divergent effects, depending on the arena of action in which it is invested". (Waquant 1998:27) A frequently cited example is the use of Black English, or Ebonics; a form of speech commonly used in primarily black social settings, but one that is negatively sanctioned and often denigrated in school and business settings (Kochman 1973; Foster 1997). Ideally, schools should serve as mediating institutions where individuals can be taught to code switch - master standard English and learn where and when its use is required - while still affirming the culture and aspirations of its students. If such skills are not taught, or if Black English and those who use it are negatively sanctioned and denigrated, then the school is more likely to produce oppositional behaviors (Ogbu 1988; Fordam 1996) which are likely to hurt the long term prospects for social mobility of the children served (Kochman 1969; Dillard 1972).
However, in the cases described here, more is at work than a simple judgment based upon speech, style or status. In the first scene the act of disciplining is delegated to the Assistant because the principal is unwilling to speak to the protesting parent. It may be that the principal and the parent had met previously and the principal formulated her opinion of the parent based on an earlier interaction. However, as Coleman (1988) has pointed out, maintaining social distance is one of the ways in which groups and individuals sanction and constrain the actions of others. Inviting the parent into her office, listening to her concerns, engaging in an equal exchange over the particular incident and the relevant rules that may have been broken, would not only connote respect but also convey in a profound way that this individual and her concerns were important. That such treatment was not extended demonstrates powerfully how perceptions of cultural capital can influence the nature of relationships between urban schools and the families they serve.
In the second case, the perceived value of the student's cultural capital is made evident as I observe the principal's reaction to the sudden arrival of her middle class parent. Instead of mere wards of the school who can be scolded without retort and dispatched quickly to class, the appearance of their presumed to be white, middle class mom, elicits a sudden and dramatic change in treatment. In her presence, the girls are no longer treated as loud and disruptive rule breakers. Under the watchful eye of a white, middle class parent, the students are spontaneously transformed into welcomed members of the school community, and the fact that they might have a legitimate reason for being late is suddenly taken into consideration. As members of the community they are spoken to with kindness, and their middle class mother is accorded the respect and deference typically extended to consumers whose business is valued and sought.
In this case, the parent is perceived as possessing positive cultural capital derived from education, income, class, and perhaps race. Race remains an unknown factor in both interactions for it is never mentioned or named. The degree to which the perceived whiteness of the parent prompts cordial treatment from the principal, is not discussed but may be relevant given how differently the principal treats the Latin-looking girls. That interaction (principal to student) may be explained by differences in age and position, but again that too is unknown. What does seem evident is that as children related to such an individual, the students immediately reap the benefits of derivative association, and experience a significant improvement in treatment as a result. I believe it is likely that the principal's change in tone and behavior is based on her understanding that a white, middle class parent has a keen sense of her individual rights and a powerful sense of entitlement with regard to how she expects to be treated by teachers or administrators in a public school (Nocera 1990). Unlike the parent in the first scenario, the middle class parent also possesses a powerful weapon that is typically inaccessible to the poor - the power of choice. I will explore this point in further detail later, but for now let it suffice to point out that an essential difference between the two parents in these examples, and between poor and middle class parents generally, is that one has the resources and wherewithal to abandon a school and choose another if she does not like the treatment that she and her children receive. In contrast, the other parent is more likely to feel that the school her daughter attends is the only one available to her, and as such, the principal holds all of the power when the two meet because she has the ability to unilaterally exercise power by suspending the student should she deem it necessary or desirable.
Particular incidents such as those described at the beginning of this paper, help in understanding the ways in which urban schools interact with the communities they serve at a micro level, however it is also important to understand how broader patterns of interaction operative at the macro influence the formation of social capital. As has been demonstrated in numerous studies, public schools in the United States, serve as great sorting machines through which inequality and privilege is reproduced (Bowles and Gintis 1977; Carnoy and Levin 1986; Katznelson and Weir 1988). They are not alone in carrying out this function, but they more than any other social institution reproduce existing social and economic inequities with an air of legitimacy that makes the process seem almost natural (Apple 1982; Giroux 1982). This is because the production of workers and professionals, future leaders and future criminals, conforms to prevailing ideological conceptions of merit and mobility. That is, those we expect to succeed - such as children from affluent families - tend to be more likely to succeed, while those we expect to fail - poor children, especially those from the inner-city and those whose primary language is not English - tend to be more likely to fail. The conventional wisdom is that the winners and losers earn what they receive in the end, and that the process of sorting is fair and based largely on achievement (Bowles and Gintis, 52). It is also assumed that school failure is the by-product of individual actions - a failure to study and do homework, to behave in class, to attend school regularly - while the collective and cultural dimensions of school failure are ignored. (Apple: 91-102).
The fact that the production of winners and losers corresponds so closely with larger societal patterns of race and class privilege, has not generated much public concern in recent years, beyond those most directly affected. This is due in large part to hegemonic forces which condition popular attitudes and expectations such that the persistence of these patterns seem "normal" or even "natural" (MacLeod 1987). For this reason, even in a period in which more public attention and resources are being channeled into education than at any other time in this nation's history (Cuban and Tyack 1994), little if any of the public discourse focuses on the issues and questions related to social reproduction. Certainly, policy makers speak out with indignation about the "crisis in public education", and decry the failure of urban schools in particular (NY Times February 2, 1999). But individual outcome measures (e.g. grades, test scores, graduation rates, etc.) are used to gauge progress, while more nebulous indicators: school climate and perceptions of safety, the morale and collegiality of teachers, the quality of relations between a school and the parents it serves, are ignored. Amidst all the outpouring of concern about the state of public education, too often the factors that those most directly involved regard as important - access to resources and materials, the state of facilities, availability of trained professionals - receive little attention while instead, resources are directed to preparation for the newest test and the latest curriculum innovation. So far, there is no renewed interest in equalizing funding between schools (Anyon 1997), interest and funding for desegregation is waning (Orfield 1996), and there is no urgent effort afoot to address the acute lack of resources in personnel, materials and services, for schools in the most economically and socially marginal communities (Kozol 1994).
If there is a crisis in public education, (2) few commentators would disagree that it is most acute in America's urban areas. The inner-city, especially those areas now referred to by some city planners as "No-zones" - no banks, no grocery stores, no community services, no hospitals - (Greenberg and Schnieder 1994) possesses more than its share of failing schools. At schools in these areas, drop-out rates hover at around 50%, test scores are generally well below national averages, and metal detectors are as ubiquitous as swings and slides on the playground (Maerof 1988). To the extent that the media carries any news of success at such schools it is most likely that it will appear in some human interest story about a single student, teacher or coach, who managed to overcome tremendous odds to accomplish something noteworthy that normally isn't possible or expected for children living in the ghetto or barrio. (3)
Urban schools in the United States are the backwater of public education, and their continued failure blends in easily with the panorama of pathologies afflicting the inner-city and its residents. This fact is so well known and so taken for granted that like inner city crime, the issue is often not even deemed newsworthy. Following the random shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas in 1998, the refrain repeated most often was that "this wasn't supposed to happen in a community like this" (Perlstein 1998). White middle class boys in a white middle class community, aren't supposed to shoot their teachers and classmates. Such a scenario is presumed to be limited to schools in the impoverished inner-city. As such, its occurrence in suburbia is to be explained, at least in part, by "urban influences" that creep into wholesome neighborhoods like an infectious disease via the media or through children from "broken families". (4)
For all of these reasons, the failure of urban schools and the children they serve, is not problematized, rather it is expected. New programs and policies are adopted with some regularity, but there is little willingness to address the fact that urban schools are inextricably linked to and affected by the economic and social forces present within the urban environment. However, they are not merely creatures of their environment. They have the potential to either contribute to the further decline of the quality of life in urban areas, or to serve as a viable social asset that can further the development of positive social capital. My own experience working with urban schools leads me to believe that any serious policy for improving urban public schools must address the educational issues in concert with other issues such as poverty, joblessness, the lack of public services, etc. Such an approach has not been attempted to since the Great Society programs of the 1960s (Pinkney 1984; Wilson 1980), and under the present paradigm of neo-liberalism, there is little likelihood that such a comprehensive effort will be launched again in the near future.
Absent the political will to support the re-creation of massive social welfare programs and investments that would spur development in economically depressed urban areas, it may still be possible that social reforms can be initiated which can bring gradual and concrete improvement to conditions in the inner-city. I believe such an approach must focus centrally on the development of social capital through the improvement of urban public schools. Specifically, the goal must be to transform urban schools into sources of social stability and support for families and children by developing their potential to 1) serve as sources of intra-community integration, and 2) to provide resources for extra-community linkages. These forms of social capital have been identified by Coleman (1988) Woolcock (1998), Putnam (1995) and others as key elements of strategies for addressing the needs of poor communities. I believe the urban public schools are uniquely and strategically situated to contribute significantly in both of these areas, and that the benefits which will derive from such developments will extend beyond the confines of school to the broader community.
Before explicating the elements of such a strategy, two points must be made regarding why it is needed:
The implication of both of these points is that it may be possible to generate significant investments in urban public schools (and charter schools) as a strategy for addressing poverty, social isolation and economic marginalization in the inner-city. A key element to achieving such a possibility necessarily involves directing resources and adopting policies that promote the development of social capital among inner-city residents. Specifically, strategies which encourage the development of social organizations and social networks that can exert influence over local schools are needed. As will be shown in the pages ahead, the cultivation of these forms of social capital can facilitate a greater degree of empowerment, accountability and control by parents and community residents over the schools that serve them. I will argue that to the extent that such outcomes can be realized, urban schools can become a powerful resource for community development and facilitate other forms of political and economic empowerment that can ultimately transform the character and quality of life of urban areas, through bottom-up, grassroots initiatives.
|Empowering a captured population
While structural factors related to the political economy of urban areas, and more specifically related to de-industrialization, globalization of the world economy, suburbanization, and middle class flight, have had profound effect upon the character of urban areas (Wilson 1980; Massey and Denton 1993) and urban schools (Maeroff 1988; Payne, 1986) social capital can also be employed as a theoretical construct to help explain the persistent failure of urban schools and to promote efforts aimed at improvement and change.
As I pointed out in the two vignettes, a major difference distinguishing the middle class parent from the lower class parent is the power of choice. By virtue of the human capital (i.e. education and information) and economic capital they possess, middle class parents have the ability to leave a school if they do not like the way their children are treated or if they perceive the quality of education offered as inadequate. Leaving may mean enrolling a child in another public school or opting out of the system altogether by sending their child to a private school. However, leaving is not the only option available because middle class parents also have other resources at their disposal to fight for what they want. Politically savvy middle class parents can petition higher authorities such as the superintendent or School Board, they can utilize organizations such as the PTA (Parent Teachers Association), churches, or the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to exert influence on school officials, or they can draw upon external contacts, such as lawyers or the media, to press for what they want or believe they are entitled to.
In contrast, lower class parents typically lack the ability to choose the school their children attend, both because the cost of private school is prohibitive, and because they may lack transportation to gain access to better schools in more affluent neighborhoods (Fuller 1996). Furthermore, unlike middle class parents, the ability of poor parents to fight for what they want is often constrained because they tend not to receive the same kind of respect and responsiveness from school authorities when they seek recourse for change. Like the parent in the first vignette, lower class parents, even when angry or passionate about their concerns, are more likely to be disregarded and not taken seriously by school officials (Lareau 1988; Kozol 1990; Comer 1982). Most writers on this problematic have argued that poor parents and children need to acquire the cultural capital (i.e. speech, style, customs, etc.) valued by the middle class in order to enhance their ability to obtain the services needed for their children (Ogbu 1978; Solomon 1992; Anderson 1986). However, such a transformation is extremely difficult to bring about and may even be impossible for most. Abandoning forms of behavior that one has acquired over the course of a lifetime, and that continue to have value in particular communities and settings, in exchange for those of another group or class, requires a high degree of motivation and self conscious acquisition. Even if cultural assimilation occurs actively and willingly, there may be no guarantee of acceptance by members of the dominant group if discriminatory attitudes related to race and class, are operative. There is considerable evidence that even middle class minorities, especially blacks, are subject to forms of racial bias and discrimination (Cose, 1995; Hacker, 1992; Barret, 1998), and the acquisition of the requisite cultural capital by itself may not be enough to counter the effects of such practices.
Moreover, such a formulation places the onus for change on the less powerful actors, thereby absolving those with more power of responsibility for modifying their own dismissive actions. It may be that it is as unrealistic to expect middle class school officials in positions of authority to change their attitudes toward the poor, as it is to expect the poor to adopt a new set of cultural norms. For this reason, I believe greater emphasis must be placed on the development of a different kind of social capital - that which is derived from organization and association. Putnam (1994) suggest that we ask ourselves "What types of organizations and networks most effectively embody - or generate - social capital, in the sense of mutual reciprocity, the resolution of dilemmas of collective action, and the broadening of social identities?" (1994:26) Within the context of economically depressed urban areas, I believe that to the extent parents and concerned community allies are able to marshal resources, organizational and legal, and expand their social networks in ways that enable them to increase the support they receive from churches, businesses, non-profit organizations, and established civic groups, urban schools can be transformed into community assets which more effectively respond to the needs of those they serve.
As a way of illustrating how such a change can be brought about, I will utilize the case of a public hospital that recently was forced to change the way in which it provides health services to its patients. For the sake of protecting the identities of those who work there, I will call this particular hospital the Wellness Medical Center. It is administered by a county government somewhere in the state of California, and is widely regarded by the public as the hospital of last resort. By that I mean with the exception of trauma care, for which it is well known and respected (largely because it serves more burn victims and individuals with gun shot wounds than any hospital west of the Mississippi), few patients with private health insurance patronize this hospital. The wait for medical service is typically quite long - even for emergencies, waiting rooms are generally crowded and dirty, and service from hospital personnel, including physicians, tends to be rushed and impersonal. For years, the patient base for Wellness Medical Center has been drawn largely from two sources - indigent care for poor people lacking health insurance, and senior citizens and others receiving some form of public assistance who are covered by MediCal. Individuals from these two constituencies have constituted a captured market - meaning they had no other options for health services - and until recently, no other health facility was interested in providing services to them.
Two years ago the status of MediCal patients was significantly elevated as compensation for health services to recipients was significantly increased. Suddenly, patients whose access to health care had been limited largely to public health facilities, were being actively courted by private hospitals. In effect, through a simple change in the law, their social capital, at least within the field of public health, increased markedly, and they were transformed from being seen as an undesirable drain on resources, into valued prospective customers.
The change in law had a profound effect upon Wellness Medical Center. Until that time, MediCal patients were the only customers capable of generating revenue, meager as it might be, for the hospital. If this population abandoned Wellness to seek health services at private facilities, Wellness would be left with indigent care alone; a patient base that would lead to the ultimate financial collapse of the hospital because services to this population generate no income for the hospital at all. Faced with the prospect of loosing their only paying customers, hospital administrators at Wellness became very concerned about finding ways to improve the quality of customer service. In response to what they perceived as a looming crisis, consultants were hired who could assist in bringing about what they described as "a change in the culture of the institution." (8)
I was one of the consultants who was hired to work with the clerks in admissions and registration. These are the "frontline" employees who are responsible for admitting patients and scheduling appointments. Throughout the hospital they were widely regarded as unfriendly, unresponsive, and often rude toward patients. Changing their attitude and conduct toward patients was seen by the hospital administration as essential to improving the quality of service.
As I conducted interviews and observations with the clerks over the next six weeks I came to see that their attitudes and behavior toward patients was directly related to the conditions under which they worked, and a by-product of their treatment by management. Working in cramped quarters with equipment that often malfunctioned, and unable to assist sick and injured patients who became angry and frustrated while waiting to be seen by a physician, the clerk's frequently became angry and irritable themselves. Their own sense of hopelessness about their working conditions produced indifference and frustration, and when confronted by sick patients who had become angry over the long wait to see a doctor, they often returned the hostility directed at them or responded with what appeared to be callous disregard toward their health needs. When I produced my final report to management with a list of recommendations on how to improve patient service in admissions and registration, I explained how service was linked to working conditions, and that it would not be possible to address former without responding to the latter.
Though they had a genuine interest in improving customer service, hospital administrators had difficulty responding to the concerns of the workers. Even though most of my recommendations seemed fairly simple and obvious (provide clerks with functioning equipment, redesign the registration work area, employ fair and consistent rules for all employees, etc.), the administration had trouble responding because they claimed they were hampered by cumbersome bureaucratic procedures and intractable union regulations. Nonetheless, because they understood that the survival of the hospital, and by extension, protection of their jobs, was at stake, they found ways to respond positively to the clerks, who in turn gradually began to improve the quality of patient service. They did so because they understood that a failure to respond would prevent them from retaining the patient population they valued.
Wellness Medical Center is a lot like many urban public schools. Like this public hospital, they too provide services to a captured market, have guaranteed source of revenue (average daily attendance in the case of public schools, state and county subsidies in the care of Wellness), and very little regard for the quality of service provided. Like the employees at Wellness who informed me that they go to private hospitals for their own health needs, the ultimate indication of the quality of service provided at urban public schools is the fact that the vast majority of teachers would not educate their own children in the schools where they work (Noguera 1994). Urban schools with a long track record of failure often develop norms which normalize student failure, and insulate professional educators from any sense of responsibility over student outcomes (Payne 1990). What is important about a case like this one is that it shows that when patients, and by extension parents, have the power and means to choose who will provide a particular service (health or education), service suppliers have greater incentive to treat their clients with dignity and respect. That is, even without changing the race, class or status of the clientele - the key ingredients of their perceived social capital - service providers can be compelled to improve the quality of service if their clients have access to alternative suppliers, otherwise they run the risk being put out of business.
This is not the same as the arguments that are typically used by proponents of school vouchers or school choice. Proponents of these policies (Chubb and Moe 1988; Cobb 1992) typically overlook the fact that vouchers don't insure access to good schools. Under voucher systems, choice remains in the hands of private schools, who are not obliged to accept students simply because they apply and have vouchers. Unlike educational facilities, hospitals and clinics generally have the capacity to expand their client base quite easily. In contrast, the ability of schools to expand is limited by capacity based on size and space, and even more importantly, the status of schools is directly related to their selectivity. Hence, while private hospitals might jump at the prospect of serving greater numbers of paying MediCal patients, private schools are less likely to open their doors to poor minority parents and their children even if they have vouchers. (9) For this reason, vouchers are more likely to benefit middle class parents who can use the voucher as a subsidy for private school tuition payments and draw from their own resources to make up the difference. (10) Finally, numerous studies have shown that choice without access to transportation and adequate information about schools is a farce. Where they have been implemented, choice systems tend to favor those with the most social capital (i.e. the middle class, the well connected, the highly motivated, etc.), while those with the least are left behind at the least desirable schools. (Wells 1992)
What this case suggest is that by empowering patients with the means to exercise choice, the service supplier has greater incentive to improve the quality of service and satisfy customer needs. Significantly, the benefits of this empowerment accrued not only to those covered by MediCal, but to the uninsured as well, since any improvement in conditions at the Wellness Medical Center would be available to all who patronized the hospital. A similar approach is needed to change the relationship between supplier and consumer at urban public schools such that they are compelled to become more responsive to those they serve. Given the limitations of choice and vouchers already pointed out, I believe the answer can only be found through the adoption of strategies that give greater power in site decision making to parents, and thereby provide them with the means to hold schools more accountable.
In 1968, public education in New York City screeched to a halt as over one million children were kept out of school as a result of a strike by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). The strike was called in response to a conflict between the union and parents at one of New York City's three demonstration school district located in the Oceanhill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn (Fantini, et al. 970). As part of an experiment referred to as "community control", district governance had been turned over to a locally elected board made up of parents, church leaders and community residents. The Board was empowered to make decisions related to the governance of schools (three elementary, one intermediate, and one middle school) in the district. This included the hiring and firing of administrators, the allocation of resources, and general oversight of educational performance. The experiment began in the Fall of 1968 with the hope that increased local involvement in school governance would lead to an improvement in the quality of schools in this low income neighborhood. (Fantini, et al. 1970:163)
Shortly after the experiment commenced conflict between the union and the Board erupted when the Board, acting under the recommendation of the Superintendent Rhody McCoy, called for the involuntary transfer of 18 teachers. These teachers were accused of undermining the goals of the experiment in community control, and the Board used their dismissal as a signal to the union that they were indeed in control. More than just an issue of who had power and who could exercise control, the conflict between the community board and the union also exposed profound differences related to the racial implications of the experiment. To a large degree, the concept of community control was embraced because it satisfied two distinct needs: 1) a desire to improve schools in this low income neighborhood which had long been perceived as dysfunctional and of low quality; 2) a desire for a concrete, local manifestation of Black and Puerto Rican nationalism which at the time called for self reliance and racial empowerment. Through community control, parents and activists, religious leaders and politicians, united in wresting control of neighborhood schools out of the hands of pre-dominantly white educators who were perceived as indifferent and unsympathetic to the needs of the community and its children. In their place educators who shared the racial and cultural background of residents, and the ideological aspirations of the Board, were invited to help implement this larger agenda of political empowerment. To begin to fulfill these larger aspirations, community control of local schools would also entail transforming the curriculum such that it reflected and embraced the cultural and historical ideals and images valued by the community and its representatives on the board.
Despite the controversy associated with what was being done in Ocean-Hill Brownsville, the call for greater community control of schools and other public services was a strategy that had been popular in anti-poverty programs for some time. Beginning in 1964 with the passage of the Equal Opportunity Act, community-action programs serving low income communities were encouraged to "develop, conduct and administer programs with the maximum feasible participation of residents of the area and members of the groups served." (11) Similar proposals for greater community control over public services had been made for the made with regard to the management of public housing and police departments, where citizens review boards were called for as a way of improving relations between community and police and reducing charges or police brutality (Currie and Skolnick 1994). While such proposals in housing and law enforcement have represented a significant departure from past practice, community control at an urban public school in New York City was not unlike the kind of relationship that existed between schools and the communities they serve in many parts of the country. In fact, the logic of the idea was completely consistent with the principle of local control - an idea central to the character of American public schools since their creation in the mid 19th century (Cremin, 1988; Katznelson and Weir 1986; Tyack 1982). Kenneth Clark, the psychologist who championed racial integration of schools, articulated the fundamental logic of the proposal in this way:
If an epidemic of low academic achievement swept over suburban schools drastic measures would be imposed. Administrators and school boards would topple, and teachers would be trained or dismissed. If students were regularly demeaned or dehumanized in those schools, cries of outrage in the PTA's would be heard - and listened to - and action would be taken immediately. Accountability at schools in small towns and suburbs is so implicitly a given that the term "community control" never is used by those who have it. (Fantini, et al. 1970)
While a certain degree of control might be taken for granted in middle class suburban schools, within the context of the economically and socially marginal communities of the inner-city, the notion that community residents had the ability to elect representatives to govern local schools was seen as a radical and risky experiment. Critics of the idea, such as Daniel P. Moynihan, argued that placing poor people in control of neighborhood schools "simply weighs them down with yet another burden with which they are not competent to deal." (12) Similar arguments were made by UFT President Albert Shanker who argued that community control would turn the schools over to vigilantes and racists, and others who condemned the Ocean Hill- Brownsville experiment as too political (Alsop, 1968; Schrag 1967), and overly ambitious (Ernst 1968; Ferretti 1968).
Ultimately, it was the UFT strike and the Mayor John Lindsay's (who initially supported the plan) capitulation to the teachers union which brought an end to community control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Yet, despite the fact that the community control experiment was aborted long before its impact on the educational performance of children could be assessed, as is often true with other policy innovations, the idea of improving urban schools through various forms of decentralized management and parental empowerment, has re-surfaced in recent years and gained new credibility. Community control is no longer the title affixed to these initiatives, but throughout the country, reforms aimed at increasing parent involvement in school on decision making bodies (Comer 1988), increasing site-based management, and transferring decision making authority to locally elected boards, are being carried out. Ironically, the logic underlying these new initiatives is almost identical to that which gave birth to community control movement in New York in 1968: by increasing school accountability to the parents they serve, and by providing parents with the organizational capacity to exert control over schools, they can be forced to improve and become more responsive toward those they serve.
|Lessons from existing models of parental empowerment
In the final pages I will describe how investments in social capital can be used to facilitate school improvement in urban areas. These examples are drawn from two cases that I have worked closely with: Berkeley High School and the San Francisco Unified School District. There are undoubtedly other examples of schools and school districts in other cities that have employed similar strategies. However, I've chosen to present these two cases because my intimate involvement with the process of parental involvement provides me with greater insight into how such policies have produced change. In my own experience, on matters pertaining to the empowerment of poor people, first hand knowledge derived from direct observation and participation, is more valuable and perhaps even more reliable than objective reports. I have found that it is too easy for researchers to exaggerate, distort or fail to comprehend whether or not participation is genuine and authentic, or whether those said to be empowered actually feel that way.
Putnam (1993) has argued that the most important forms of social capital consist of "features of social organizations, such as networks, norms and trust, that facilitate action and cooperation for mutual benefit." (1993:35-36) Coleman applies the concept of closure to his analysis of social capital to argue that norms and sanctions on behavior which support group goals and aspirations only develop when "the trustworthiness of social structures allows for the proliferation of obligations and expectations."(1988:107) Particularly in relationships that exist between parents and schools, Coleman argues that student performance is enhanced by the degree of closure in parent-school relationships (1988:118). In the arguments he makes to support this point, Coleman suggest that a major reason for the lower dropout rate at Catholic schools than public schools is that...
It is the religiously based high schools that are surrounded by a community based on the religious organization. These families have intergenerational closure: whatever other relations they have, the adults are members of the same religious body and parents of children in the same school.(1988:114)
Congruity in values leads to a reinforcement of social norms that promote regular school attendance, conformity to school rules, and concern for academic achievement. In contrast, Coleman argues that public schools tend to have relatively low social closure with the families they serve, and consequently, children often get lost in the discontinuity between the values and norms promoted at school (which may be nebulous and difficult to discern) and those which are supported by families.
Building on Coleman's point, I will argue that public schools can more effectively serve the needs of the children who attend them when efforts aimed at producing greater closure are pursued. There are several ways in which this can be accomplished. For example, public schools can work toward developing a clear sense of mission and purpose so that it is clear to parents and students what they can and should expect from a particular school. Another way to create a greater degree of closure is to provide parents with organizational resources that enable them to serve as more effective advocates for their children. This may also include providing parents representatives with a role in decision making at the school and district level.
The latter approach has been actively pursued in the San Francisco Unified School District, where a concerted effort to invest in parents has been in place for the last six years (Noguera 1997). As part of Superintendent Waldemar Rojas strategy for raising student achievement, the following policies and actions have been taken: 1) An office of parent relations has been established for the purpose of coordinating communication between the district and parents; 2) Parent centers aimed specifically at Latino, Asian and African American parents have been funded and developed; 3) A variety of community-based mobilizations, including marches, conferences, and rallies, have been organized for the purpose of generating active parental participation in school and district-wide affairs; 4) Parents have been delegated a greater role in the governance of the district and particular schools. A representative of the district-wide PTA sits on the Superintendent's cabinet, and parents have decision making authority at schools that have been reconstituted schools, (13) particularly in the selection of new teachers and administrators.
Documenting the impact of these strategies is difficult. Test scores and other key indicators of student performance (i.e. grades, graduation rates, admission to college, etc.) for all ethnic groups have risen steadily for each of the six years that the plan has been in place, but there is no way of knowing how much credit should be assigned to the district's strategy of investing in parents for this change in student outcomes. Undoubtedly, the measure of the plan's effectiveness can not be based on student achievement measures. Instead, indications of enhanced social capital among the most marginal parents are more important. If Coleman is right, and the development of social capital and closure are key factors in improving the quality of education, then what we need is some evidence that this is in fact occurring.
As a consultant to the District over the last five years, (14) I have witnessed first hand how the district's emphasis on parental empowerment has influenced the character of discussion of educational issues at the site and district level. For the last three years the District has organized a city-wide parent empowerment conference, which attracted over 800 parents on each of the three years it has been held. Most significant for me was the fact that the District provided transportation and childcare, and parents from the poorest parts of the city attended. Beyond providing workshops on what is commonly referred to as parent education (e.g. how to help your child with homework, how to be an advocate for your child, things you should know about college, etc.), the sessions also addressed some of the controversial policy issues facing the District. Sessions on the impact of propositions 187, 209, and 227 (15) , have been held, as well as policy oriented discussions on issues such as social promotion. All three of the parent centers previously mentioned were created as a result of the conferences, and each of the centers currently report active involvement at workshops and other events for parents which they sponsor at schools in the community. (16)
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, in the raucous and bitter hearings over reconstitution which pitted angry members of the teachers' union against an adamant district administration, parents have played an unpredictable role. Both sides have courted parents heavily to support their dichotomous positions on the issue - for the union, that reconstitution is too heavy handed and disruptive, for the administration, that drastic measures are needed to improve conditions in schools. However, instead of being manipulated by one side or the other, parents have frequently staked out independent positions, favoring reconstitution in some cases, opposing it in others. Their presence at meetings has influenced Board decisions, because unlike the two combatants - the union and the administration - the parents live in San Francisco and vote in elections.
The other sign that the District's emphasis on parental empowerment is having an impact on schools comes from visiting the schools themselves. I have only had first hand experiences at a handful of schools, so I do not claim that my impressions are at all generalizable, but at those I've visited I have been struck by the extent to which parents work with faculty and feel a sense of ownership toward their school. For example, I was asked to speak at E.R. Taylor Elementary School at a meeting of parents and teachers that was set up to determine how funds from a newly won Healthy Start grant would be used. The school was located in a predominantly black, low income neighborhood known as Bayview, and most of the parents attending the meeting came from housing projects in the area. Before my speech, I met with a small group of parents and teachers who explained how much work they had put into writing the grant. One of the parents, a Samoan woman in her mid 40s, who appeared to be a leader in the group, explained to me how the use of the funds would be prioritized.
We have a lot of children at this school who don't eat breakfast in the mornings. Some of them haven't seen an eye doctor or dentist. The people from the State Department said that this grant is a healthy start grant, which means it should be for the health of the children. Nothing else can come before that. We believe that healthy children will do better in school. (Site visit 3/18/98)
As the woman spoke, the rest of the group looked on; smiling and nodding with approval. It was clear to me that this woman, regardless of her lack of education or income, was the recognized leader in the group, and not merely a token representative. After my speech, the same parent, and not the principal who had originally contacted me, took it upon herself to invite me back to the school in three months to see what kind of progress they had made toward achieving their goals.
What is most striking to me about this experience is how significantly it contrasts with my visits to most other urban schools. More often than not, in my conversations with teachers and administrators at urban public schools, parents are described as uncaring, dysfunctional, unsupportive, and part of the problem. Rather than being seen as partners capable of making meaningful contributions to the education of children, they are more likely to be seen obstacles in the way of progress, and problems to be overcome.
This was the case at Berkeley High School (BHS), where for the longest time, the poor academic performance of black and Latino students, was explained as by-product of parent disinterest in education. BHS is a relatively large school with approximately three thousand students and over one hundred and fifty teachers, counselors and administrators. According to the school districts data, approximately 40% of the students are White, 40% are African American, 10% are Latino and 10% are Asian American. Racial differences generally correspond to class differences in that the vast majority of white students are from middle class and affluent backgrounds, while the majority of African American and Latino students come from low income families.
To an outsider, the school seems amazingly diverse, but from within, racial fragmentation is apparent in almost every aspect of the school. On the basis of almost every significant indicator, BHS is a school that does not serve its black and Latino students well. Nearly fifty percent of black and Latino students who enter BHS in the ninth grade fail to graduate from the school, and among those who do graduate, few complete the course requirements necessary for admission at the University of California, or the state college system (WASC Report 1996). These students also comprise the overwhelming majority of students who are suspended or expelled for disciplinary reasons. Moreover, the adjunct continuation high school, which was established to serve students with poor attendance and behavioral problems, is almost entirely comprised of African American and Latino students.
As might be expected, not only are African American students disadvantaged and marginal within the school community but so are their parents. At most school activities that call for parental involvement and participation, African American and Latino parents are vastly underrepresented. This is also true of decision making bodies where parents have a say in how resources are allocated, and it is most dramatically evident on the back-to-school nights where parents are invited to meet their children's teachers. Historically, the auditorium where several hundred parents gather prior to visiting the classrooms of their kids' teachers is nearly entirely white with little more than and handful of Black and Latino parents sprinkled throughout the crowd.
In 1996 a group that I helped to establish known as the Diversity Project began searching for ways to increase the involvement of parents who previously had been most marginal to school.. We did this because we believed that if we were going to be successful in our efforts to address disparities in academic achievement within the school we would have to take on this issue because we would have to find ways to empower those who were most disenfranchised As we approached this work we recognized that those who benefited under the present circumstances might perceive themselves as having a vested interest in preserving the status quo, and might resist efforts to support change that produces greater equity. As we carried out our work we positioned ourselves as facilitators of discussion rather than as advocates for a particular agenda because we sought to prevent ourselves from becoming trapped in a polarized conflict over change at the school. It was our hope that organizing African American and Latino parents would provide us with a means to insure that the change effort would not be dependent upon our advocacy alone, and also serve to counterbalance the influence that would be exerted by the opponents of change.
Research in the form of a series of focus group discussions served as our entree into organizing. Focus group discussions were set up for Latino and African American parents to elicit their views on the state of the school. Specifically, we wanted to know what concerns they had about the education their children were receiving, what kinds of obstacles they encountered when interacting with school officials on behalf of their children, and what kinds of changes they felt would help make BHS more receptive to their concerns.
Over the course of six months over 75 focus groups were conducted with over four hundred parents. To insure that maximum opportunity was provided for open communication, all of the sessions with Spanish speaking parents were conducted in Spanish. Food and childcare were also provided as an added incentive to attract high levels of participation. Finally, the focus groups were tape recorded, the sessions were transcribed, and a report summarizing the issues raised was presented to a newly formed Strategic Planning committee for inclusion in their report to the school.
The parent outreach committee of the Diversity Project also recruited parents to join them in conducting the focus groups and carrying out the research. This was important because the active core group of the committee is now taking leadership at the school in devising strategies aimed at institutionalizing parental involvement. The group has already gotten the BHS administration to designate a surplus classroom which will be used as a parent center, and they have written grants to foundations for the purpose of hiring two part-time parent organizers.
Aside from these accomplishments, there is other evidence that the organization of black and Latino parents is already beginning to have an impact upon the school. At a community forum in May of 1998 that was held for the purpose of soliciting responses to the plan as it was being drafted, nearly half of the parents present were African American and Latino. Most of these were parents who had become active in the leadership of the parent outreach group. During the meeting several spoke out openly about their criticisms of the plan and freely offered suggestions on what they would like to see included in it. After the meeting several teachers commented that it was the first meeting that they had attended in which the composition of the parents present matched that of the student body. The Diversity Project hopes to build upon this accomplishment in the future so that the ongoing effort to undermine racial inequality within the school is led and actively supported by the parents of the children who have the most to gain.
When parents are respected as partners in the education of their children, and when they are provided with organizational support which enables them to channel their interest to the benefit of the school, the entire culture of the organization can be transformed. Parents have knowledge of children's lives outside of school, which teachers typically do not have, and that knowledge can prove helpful in developing effective pedagogical strategies (Ladson-Billings 1992; Spindler and Spindler 1988). More importantly, the familiarity between school and parent that develops as a result of such partnerships, can also begin to generate social closure and transform urban schools from alien and hostile organizations, into genuine community assets.
Published in In Motion Magazine May 20, 1999.
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