Powerful Conversations about Education Reform

I was struck by Lara Hebert’s recent Perspective, "The Value of Social Capital." The distinction between human and social capital has me intrigued.

Where current rhetoric around reform tends to focus on the measure of individual teacher knowledge and expertise (a.k.a. human capital), it’s the measure of professional collaboration and networking (social capital), that requires as much—and maybe more—attention to truly make a difference.

Last month NCLE Associate Director KaiLonnie Dunsmore and I had the opportunity to spend some time with members of  the National Adolescent Literacy Coalition (NALC) to talk about the importance of professional learning as a collaborative process and about why supporting educator teams is at the core of the National Center for Literacy Education initiative.  I didn't realize at the time that, in these conversations, we were in fact calling out this distinction between human capital and social capital.

Even as KaiLonnie and I planned our presentation to NALC members, we knew we could not introduce the topic of education reform initiatives without giving those around us the opportunity to share some of their own professional histories.  It is always good to be reminded that we don’t all hold the same views on the various reforms.  The conversations were not as black and white as we would have predicted.

We began by listing reforms of the past that significantly impacted education as we know it today—the slide above shows just some of the examples that surfaced.

Despite the negative aspects of some of these past initiatives, we still found  ourselves naming at least one positive contribution that resulted from each. But it was the next activity that brought us to “Ah hah!”

In this activity, we considered the reforms and initiatives from our list using NCLE’s capacity-building model as the frame.

Using the slide shown at left as a framework for discussion, we asked the attendees to consider, for example, how literacy was viewed in each of these initiatives.

Over time, it's clear that we are seeing a broader understanding of literacy and shared responsibilities associated with literacy instruction. In fact, key stakeholders of NCLE took up such a conversation at a meeting last summer,  resulting in the Perspective, "A Definition of Literacy?"

Participants at NALC took up similar conversations around collaborative inquiry and organizational conditions that support capacity building. As a group we were able to see the complexities and the dangers of oversimplifying any one of these efforts as successes or failures.  Our personal experiences around the local planning and implementation helped us to better understand the importance of the concepts described as organizational conditions.

This conversation was so powerful in helping us think about the impact of these reform efforts over time instead of thinking about them as separate reforms or initiatives one after another. Why not consider using this same exercise as a point of discussion during the next meeting of your staff or your next professional learning community? Create your own chart of local initiatives and unpack them using these lenses:

  • The view of literacy
  • Opportunities for collaborative inquiry
  • Organizational conditions and tools necessary to support the learning

To learn more about the organizational conditions that support capacity-building, consider creating an Exchange Team, inviting your colleagues in as a group, and taking the Asset Inventory. (It takes less than 10 minutes!) Members of your group will receive a detailed report that will ensure a lively discussion.

Here’s a sample report to whet your appetite. Consider sharing what you discover using the comment feature below.  

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