Students face an ‘opportunity gap.’ Here’s how to close it.

Researchers are building assessments that let educators measure a student's social capital
By: | July 15, 2020
Guiding students in building their social capital by forming stronger relationship with adults in and outside school can lead to greater personal success. (GettyImages/SDI Productions)Guiding students engaged in building their social capital by forming stronger relationship with adults in and outside school can lead to greater personal success. (GettyImages/SDI Productions)
Mahnaz R. Charania, Clayton Christensen Institute

Mahnaz R. Charania, Clayton Christensen Institute

Social capital, or who a student knows and can rely on for support, is often a key component of success in school, higher education and the workforce.

But forces beyond a student’s control can make it harder for them to build such a network, creating what education researcher Mahnaz R. Charania calls an “opportunity gap.”

That’s why researchers are developing ways that schools, community organizations and other adults can map a student’s social network, which will help young people create personal connections that lead to greater avenues for personal success.

“We know these opportunities are unequally distributed,” says Mahnaz R. Charania, a senior education researcher at the Clayton Christensen Institute, a think tank that studies disruption in various sectors of society. “This can cause alarming gaps in what students are able to access during their educational journey and after they graduate from college.”


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Charania and her colleagues are building formative assessments that educators can use to determine whether students’ have adequate personal resources.

This need for this information has become more urgent since students were forced to shift to online learning and were away from teachers and other adults at school who may be their primary source of social-emotional and academic support, Charania says.

For example, when schools close, more affluent students were more likely to have immediate access to tutors and other homework help as soon as schools closed.

“COVID has exposed deep systemic inequities that were present far before 2020,” she says. “These are not just academic achievement gaps, these are gaps in who students know and the resources they can access through those relationships.”

How to assess social capital

Charania’s framework for measuring social capital has four dimensions:

  • Quantity of relationships: Who do students know?
  • Quality of relationships: Are adults offering children what they actually what need?
  • Structure of network: Are students connected with a variety of adults?
  • Ability to mobilize relationships: Do students know how to seek help when they need it?

“It’s not enough to put relationships within students’ reach,” Charania says. “They also need to be able to engage in authentic relationships when they leave school.”


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Among the measurements educators can implement as soon as schools reopen is “relationship mapping.” The Making Caring Common initiative guides teachers in having students map out who they know and trust in and outside of school.

This is valuable because the adult a student relies on most may not always be the obvious candidate, such as their classroom teacher.

It can also give students a better understanding of how relationships evolve and how they can best be leveraged, Charania says.

How COVID impacts relationships

The adjustments school leaders will make in the coming school year to prevent the spread of coronavirus will have an impact on the relationships students form and cultivate.

For example, extracurricular activities—which Charania calls a “critical pathway” for students in building social networks—may be eliminated or restricted, preventing students from accessing mentors.

School leaders this summer should, therefore, be trying to figure out how to maintain these connections. For example, educators can use software platforms, such as Nepris, that allow students to communicate online with professionals across various industries.


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The platform also allows educators to track how many connections students are making to ensure they are meeting a diversity of professionals and that the sessions align with a district’s college-and-career goals.

Another tool, trovvit, allows students to build a portfolio of their social networks. This makes building social capital very explicit to the students, Charania says.

“We need to redefine what student success looks like,” she says. “We have powerful metrics around academic accountability, but we also need to make sure we include metrics that position students for social and economic mobility.”