Rebuilding the Stock of Social Capital

Schools have a leading role to play in re-engaging America’s youth in civics by THOMAS H. SANDER and ROBERT D. PUTNAM

Professor Robert D. Putnam’s 1995 article, "Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital," in the Journal of Democracy struck a responsive chord among Americans by documenting a trend many of us had witnessed as citizens: Namely, that over the last 30 years our civic muscle had atrophied.

Putnam measured this decline with "social capital," a term first coined in 1919 by West Virginia Superintendent of Schools L.J. Hanifan and then reintroduced into the education literature by sociologist James Coleman in the 1970s.

What is social capital? In a nutshell, it's the norms and networks of trust and reciprocity that foster collective action. More colloquially, it's the friendships, professional circles, clubs, neighborhoods, churches and alumni networks where you help the group or a fellow member because you care about and trust the group and know your action ultimately will benefit all (including you). Social capital also is more generalized trust and reciprocity, such as blood or organ donations, the impulse to trust strangers to do right or the expectation to return $1,000 found in the street.

Mounting Isolation
What's been happening to our stock of social capital over the last generation? We have found a disconcerting, precipitous decline in social interactions over the last three decades across all forms of social capital--formal and informal, high-minded and leisure, public and private. (More than the smorgasbord of evidence presented here will appear in Putnam's book Bowling Alone, to be published in early 2000.)

We start at the civic epicenter: We are bowling alone. While a record number of Americans bowl today, bowling in organized leagues plunged 40 percent from 1980 to 1993. Lest you think this a trivial factoid, nearly a third more Americans (80 million) bowled once or more in 1993 than voted in the 1994 congressional elections. And counter to popular myth, bowling has not simply been replaced by youth soccer. Bowlers' ranks are roughly triple the size of soccer parents. Even if every soccer mom and dad religiously attended their children's games, it couldn't make up the drop in league bowling.

Our point is not that bowling is critical to America's future, but that in bowling leagues, fraternal organizations, choral societies and thousands of other places where Americans regularly meet, fellow citizens talk periodically about issues of civic importance and learn to trust others and work together. And alas, these civic watering holes are drying up.

Evaporating Trust
Civic do-gooding organizations also have met hard times. The League of Women Voters has lost 42 percent of its members since 1969. In the domain of schools, PTAs nationwide plummeted from a membership high in the early 1960s of almost 50 members per 100 families with school-age children to less than 20 members per 100 in 1997. (This decline can only partly be explained by the movement of parents from the PTA into Parent Teacher Organizations.)

And alas, it's not just these particular organizations. In 1975-76 the average American attended some club meeting once a month. By last year, that figure had dropped 58 percent to only five meetings annually. Almost two-thirds of Americans attended at least one club meeting in 1975-76, but only 38 percent did so in 1997-98.

Informal associating also has declined. In 1975, the average American invited friends over more than 14 times yearly. By 1998 that had dropped 60 percent to only eight times a year. Perhaps most alarmingly, the family meal--a ritual practiced for millennia--may within our lifetimes enter the nation's endangered practices list. The fraction of married Americans who definitely say "our whole family usually eats dinner together" has declined a third, from about 50 percent to 34 percent in just the last two decades, and this decline leaves aside the rapidly dwindling fraction of intact married couples over this period.

Generalized trust also has evaporated. While 55 percent of American adults in 1960 believed others could be trusted most or all of the time, only 30 percent did in 1998, and the future looks bleaker because the decline was sharpest among our nation's youth. Roughly three-quarters of Americans trusted government to do the right thing most or all the time in 1960, a figure that sounds quaint today when only 25 percent trust the government. This disappearance of trust has huge ramifications for our ability to cooperate and work with strangers: a citizen at a town meeting or a new neighbor, businessperson, classmate or teacher.

A Leverage Point
This civic nosedive has other consequences beyond the loss of some warm and fuzzy community. It is said that if you give a child a hammer, everything becomes a nail. Recently social capital has become a hammer for social scientists.

A burgeoning body of literature over the last 4 to 5 years shows that social capital enables many important social goods. Controlling for all variables like education, wealth or race, social capital helps explain higher educational achievement, better performing governmental institutions, faster economic growth, less crime and violence in communities and even better health and longer life expectancy. (Actually, it's a tossup whether a smoking non-joiner could extend her life more by joining a group or quitting smoking.)

In education, a 10 percent increase in parental participation (a form of social capital) would increase academic achievement far more than a 10 percent increase in school spending. This is not an argument against school budget increases, but an argument for paying attention to social capital.

Our hunch is that like in "Murder on the Orient Express," our nation's civic decline has multiple culprits: the decline of the nuclear family, television watching, urban sprawl and the way this has made our personal schedules more complex, and the increase of two-career couples. Nevertheless, we think it is unachievable and undesirable to turn the clock back to the 1950s by asking women to shut off the TVs on their way back to the kitchen. Society has changed markedly over the last three decades--socially, technologically and economically--and thus we need to be forward-looking.

Schools are essential to reinvesting in social capital, for three related reasons.

First, much of the decline in civic connectedness is generational. Today's children (and their parents) are much less engaged in community life than their grandparents' cohort. Second, the baby boomers' children are now bursting the walls of U.S. elementary schools and will flood the high schools within the next 7 to 10 years. Third, the maxim "as the twig is bent, so grows the tree" applies to civic engagement. Among the strongest predictors of civic engagement in adults is their experience (curricular and extracurricular) as young people. Thus, schools are a crucial leverage point for solving our national social capital deficit.

Ideas for Innovation
We'll share nine leading strategies that could work for school superintendents, but we hope these ideas spark continued innovation and experimentation. Educational leadership organizations, such as AASA, should devote ongoing attention to schools' efforts in this area: what's working in the civic arena and the challenges of implementation.

Some of the ideas we share have emerged from a dialogue we've orchestrated among a diverse group of leading thinkers and doers, called the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, which is based at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. (The Saguaro Seminar will issue a report next year on promising strategies for civic re-engagement. In the meantime, more information can be found at ksgwww.harvard.edu/saguaro/.)


  • No. 1: Spur greater parental involvement.


    This is a key resource to foster academic learning and strengthen social capital within the family and between parents and school. While superintendents cannot mandate parental involvement anywhere except perhaps in charter schools, they at least can create a strong expectation of parental involvement.

    How can parents and teachers connect when both have busy schedules? Here's one interesting experiment. The American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care has initiated the Bridge Project in 102 schools in eight states. This specially developed voice-messaging system enables teachers to leave daily messages for parents in multiple languages concerning school activities, so parents can reinforce school lessons. Parents can use this system at any hour. Ultimately, this technology could enable two-way asynchronous communication between parents and teachers at times convenient to each.

    Another creative experiment is the satellite learning centers (also called work-site schools). These are public schools for the children of company employees, built and furnished by those corporations on adjacent property and then donated to the city and staffed by city teachers. These racially diverse schools produce impressive levels of educational achievement, fostered by parents who can and do visit the schools over lunch hour or at day's end. Thirty satellite learning centers are in operation and 10 more are in the works, but modest business tax incentives obviously could hasten their spread.

    These worksite schools do have a few disadvantages. They can hinder neighborhood play groups from forming, expose children to longer commutes and force children to change schools if a parent changes jobs.


  • No. 2: Make schools smaller.


    Big schools, like sprawling cities, foster anonymity, decrease the chance that every student is well known by a teacher, and make each student feel less special. Research shows that smaller schools create more civicly active students. Fifteen schools of 200 students provide far greater opportunity to be in a school play, serve on a mini-school government or excel in a class than does a school of 3,000.

    Without building new small schools, we could attain significant benefit by dividing our large schools into smaller mini-schools. New York's District Four in East Harlem showed the effectiveness of this approach. In the 1970s, teachers, administrators and residents were promoted to school directors to implement entrepreneurial visions for a portion of an elementary or junior high school. Parents chose from the wide diversity of approaches, curricula and philosophies districtwide.

    This innovation boosted the district's student test scores from the city's worst to above average within 14 years. Undoubtedly other ways exist. For example, the Japanese make a concerted effort to keep school classes together both throughout the day and for two consecutive years to build a stronger school community.


  • No. 3: Utilize community service to foster civic engagement.


    Convincing evidence shows that community service requirements and service learning lead to longer-term civic engagement. Community service is already widespread. Five recent surveys suggest that 25 to 35 percent of U.S. high schools already require community service, and some 42 percent of high school seniors in 1998 performed community service either in-school or out-of-school. National surveys show a significant increase in youth volunteering, and follow-up studies have shown that community service has a long-term effect on civic engagement. Nevertheless, much could be done to deepen the impact.

    Service learning, which integrates community service into class learning, boosts classroom learning and bolsters longer-term civic engagement. A service learning project might be teen-agers learning recent American history by conducting oral history interviews with lonely senior residents or 8th graders learning scientific measurement by calculating streambed pollution for a local environmental group. Teachers should strive for service projects that involve students in the planning, that involve face-to-face service with beneficiaries, that allow for repeated interactions with those served over time, and that allow servers and those served to discuss and reflect on their experience afterward. Finally, service learning can be effective starting much younger, even with kindergarten or 2nd grade students.


  • No. 4: Teach civics effectively in schools.


    We must invest substantially in the three legs of civics education: creating civic skills, imparting civic knowledge and developing civic values. Civics education is a noble goal with a distinguished history in American political discourse, but the term has been reduced to a musty melange of dubious relevance to today's youth. Research, however, shows that civic skills and civic knowledge are powerful determinants of long-term civic participation. While they can be learned by experience, civic skills and especially knowledge can be taught. The American Political Science Association's Task Force on Civic Education for the Next Century plans to recommend effective strategies and programs for use in schools and in communities.

    Meanwhile, teachers should begin building action into civics courses. Rather than simply teaching how a bill becomes law, a high school civics instructor in south-central Los Angeles worked with students to effect a political change important to students: getting lights for a neighborhood basketball court. KidsVoting USA teaches students about the political process and then they cast mock ballots recorded alongside their parents' votes. The process increases the propensity of students and parents to vote. What we need is more such bottom-up innovation, and a top-down push for similar programs from parents, school boards, teachers, superintendents and citizens.


  • No. 5: Fund extracurricular activities.


    Extracurricular activities are an overlooked, but extremely valuable experiences in forging civic habits. School budgetary pressures have decimated funding for extracurricular activities, and participation has dropped. Some communities have relied resourcefully on parents to shoulder some funding, but many youth have dropped these important activities when parents can't afford to participate.

    We have paid a high price: From 1972 to 1992, high school participation in student government dropped 21 percent, participation in music, drama and debate fell by 15 percent, cheerleading plunged more than 50 percent, vocational clubs were down 18 percent, and newspaper/yearbook, athletics and honor societies all dropped roughly 5 percent. From a civic point of view, a half dozen national studies now show that extracurriculars are not frills. School administrators must work with parents, school boards and state agencies to strengthen extracurricular activities. Consider these a strategic long-term investment in a community.


  • No. 6: Model a high school on a community.


    Many high schools have ceased to provide real opportunities to learn trust and reciprocity. We should seek opportunities for the school to act as a community in which the students are key members. Schools might bring discipline problems before a student peer group or an all-school meeting to resolve. Students trained in peer mediation can help resolve fellow students' disputes or impart school values like abstinence from drugs or teen-age pregnancies.

    Teachers might also encourage student-to-student teaching. Such teaching helps students at risk of failure to regain their confidence and desire to learn (for example, coaching younger students on multiplication ultimately helps the struggling algebra student). We might follow the Japanese model that expects students to keep the school clean rather than relying on janitors or asks students to perform administrative duties like serving lunchroom food.

    Leadership Options

  • No. 7: Create opportunities for meaningful youth contribution.


    Because school-age children only spend a third of their waking hours in school and school dropouts are increasing, we must give youth an opportunity to work on projects outside of schools in which they can contribute and lead. In just these terms, Joan Wynn from Chicago's Chapin Hall lauds the world-class Chicago-based Jesse White Tumbling Team, the Bicycle Action Project (a bike shop that teaches inner city youth how to fix bicycles and resell them to neighbors) and Children's Express, a youth journalism program that produces a top-notch newspaper. The Michigan Youth Philanthropy Project relies on youth recommendations for communities throughout Michigan. Youth as Resources taps youth ideas for reducing neighborhood crime and promoting a neighborhood's sense of community. The Explainer Program trains youth to be guides for San Francisco's Exploratorium Science Museum.

    These programs impart skills in youth leadership (useful later in running a community meeting, advocating for change in public policy or writing a letter to the local newspaper), build camaraderie and generate networks of engagement and trust. We need to fund more such youth-driven and youth-led ventures and provide information and technical assistance for youth and adults wanting to establish these community programs.


  • No. 8: Establish mentoring programs that work.


    Every child needs an adult to play Batman to his or her Robin--someone who can coach, encourage, provide a "toolbox" and ultimately protect. Boston-based Citizen Schools reweaves communities by using volunteer citizen teachers to apprentice youth after school or on weekends by, for example, building a Web site, making pottery, writing and editing a story or creating a dance.

    C. Gregg Petersmeyer, father of the 1000 Points of Light, has tirelessly advocated for adults to share their passions with kids. Building organizations that let us share our passions builds social capital across divides of race and class. We can have fun while making a real difference in the lives of youth.


  • No. 9: Ask youth for solutions.


    Young people didn't cause the national social capital deficit, but they can help fix it with their innovative ideas. Our experiences are different enough from theirs that we don't dare guess their answers. Educational leaders should enlist young people in thinking about what would be fun, build useful skills and link them to others. We all then can work to effect these ideas.

    Thomas Sander is executive director of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138. E-mail: tom_sander@harvard.edu. Robert Putnam is the Stanfield Professor of International Peace at Harvard.