Exploring capacity in education

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“So what’s the alternative?”

This is a regular, appropriate question posed to those of us who have been known to question various aspects of choice-and-accountability education reform. I say I’m not a defender of the status quo, so let’s see me put my money where my mouth is, right? I’ve argued that most of the current reform movement is focused on changing the systems of authority and governance for schools in the hopes that those changes to rules and incentives will trickle down into meaningful changes at the school and classroom level. I’ve also argued that this misdiagnoses the real problem, which is a lack of capacity.

It would be understandable to assume that when I say we have “a lack of capacity,” that my prescription will be more money going into education. It’s substantially more complicated than that, though, and I’ll explore how in several future posts. To kick things off, here’s an outline of what I mean by capacity, and I’ll dig into each of these points in more detail soon.

Capacity is about more than resources; it’s about having whatever is needed to do something. In this case, that’s educational equity. I’m thinking out loud a little here, but I’d propose three key types of capacity necessary for that goal.

Material Capacity

Material capacity is not money. It’s the physical resources necessary for learning. If a school doesn’t have air conditioning when it’s 97 degrees outside, it lacks material capacity. If you plan to teach students computer skills, you need computers. If you’re buildings are falling apart, sending the message to kids that they’re not a priority, that’s a material capacity problem.

Human Capacity

Physical resources are meaningless without the people who can put them to effective use. This includes teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers, nurses, librarians, custodians, and all the other people necessary to create safe, supportive, and effective learning opportunities.

Skill Capacity

Even if you’ve got the right tools and the right people, those people need the skills that will let them put those tools to good use. For example, a motivated, caring teacher with access to top-of-the-line facilities and a manageable class size still needs the skills for effective assessment, instruction, classroom management, and keeping all of the above appropriate for and responsive to all students’ cultures.

One last wrinkle that I hope to explore is the consideration of both school capacity and community capacity. There are benefits to be gained from building both, and considering how to do so should be a priority for reformers of all stripes.