Adapted from Mahnaz Charania's Who you know matters. Let's start measuring it.
Gaps in academic outcomes measured by the NAEP, PISA, and TIMSS between the top and bottom quartiles of students have remained large and remarkably constant for nearly half a century. These gaps in academic achievement need to be addressed. But they are only part of the story.
To fuel student success equitably, particularly in the coming year, schools and postsecondary institutions must address students’ unequal access to resources that drive academic and economic success. One of those critical resources is students’ networks. Depending on their background, students report vastly different webs of relationships at their disposal. Despite their indisputable value in the student success equation and broad agreement in the education field that “relationships matter,” there’s scarce attention paid to actually measuring students’ relationships and the value of the networks they form over time.
How relationships influence student success
Relationships and networks are essential for getting by and getting ahead. Who students know is inextricably linked to what students know. In one study of elementary students, students’ social capital—their access to, and ability to mobilize, relationships that help them further their potential and their goals—was found to have a greater impact on their math and literacy skills than instructional resources. Relationships impact students’ grades and persistence through high school and college and are an essential source of ongoing care, support, and encouragement.
Social capital research also reveals that relationships can offer lasting value that students can rely on long after they graduate. For example, an estimated 50% of jobs come through personal connections. Long term, a broad and diverse reservoir of positive relationships positions young people to access continued support and maximize career optionality and economic success.
A Framework for measuring students' social capital
Building students’ social capital is an equity imperative for any system committed to closing the opportunity gap. All too often, however, this critical resource in the opportunity equation repeatedly goes unmeasured, leaving students’ access to networks to chance. In the absence of measurement, relationship assets may go undetected and gaps undiagnosed. By intentionally measuring students’ social capital, education systems stand to positively influence students’ academic, social, and economic success.
In The Missing Metrics: Emerging practices for measuring students’ relationships and networks, they propose a four-dimensional framework for measuring students’ social capital, based on empirical research as well as practices of early innovators across K–12, postsecondary, and workforce development.
Over the last few years, a host of early innovators have started to build an evidence base for the instrumental role that students’ relationships—alongside individual effort and ability—play in the student success equation. Because relationships are complex, these programs measure across multiple dimensions to better understand the depth and breadth of relationships between students and staff and also to ensure students expand their networks in the course of their learning.
For example, ASU Local, a hybrid online learning and work-based learning degree program, offers students high-touch support with both academic and career coaches. Students are asked to rate their student-coach relationship quality through statements such as, “I feel supported by…the coaches” and “I feel like the…coaches have created a comfortable and safe environment” to ensure that the coaches are meeting students’ relational, developmental, and instrumental needs—three indicators of high-quality relationships. Students’ mindsets and ability to cultivate social capital is also tracked through student responses to statements such as, “I am confident in work environments” and “I consider my new connections members of my professional network.”
Technology is also leveraged by some innovators to diversity and expand students’ professional networks. For instance, Big Picture Learning, a nonprofit that supports a network of high schools that offer internship-based learning, uses a technology tool called ImBlaze to pose questions to students and their internship site mentors on a daily or weekly basis. Some partner schools use the app to ask mentors about the extent to which they open up their networks to the students they work with. One school asks mentors, “Did you introduce your young person to someone in your professional network today?” Others ask similar questions to students such as, “Did your mentor connect you with someone in their professional network today?” to ensure student responses are aligned with the adults and that students have awareness and agency in maintaining these relationships over time.