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Consortium for Policy Research in Education

It is an oft-heard refrain in schools: "These schools lack the capacity they need." Or, "We need to build capacity in schools so that students can achieve." In district offices, statehouses, and elsewhere, the sentiment is repeated in various forms, but the term "capacity" is almost always used. What do education leaders mean when they use the word capacity? Some people use the word to mean the intangible behaviors or characteristics that are needed for a school to improve, while others use capacity as a synonym for ability or knowledge. Meanwhile, economists often talk about capacity in terms of quantities or outcomes that an organization is able to produce. Given the nearly ubiquitous use of the term in education policy discourse, the authors offer a common framework for analyzing capacity that educators, policymakers, and researchers alike can apply and understand with consistency. Their goal is not to provide an easy, new, one-sentence definition, but rather to create a shared language that can be applied to research and improvement efforts in schools. In this Policy Brief, they break capacity down into component parts, explaining how each one builds off the next and contributes to the overall concept. Their hope is that the four research-based components they suggest--human capital, social capital, program coherence, and resources (building on Hatch, 2009; Elmore, 2000; Fullan, 2000; Spillane & Thompson, 1997; Corcoran & Goertz, 1995)--will stimulate discussion of a widely accepted meaning of capacity in both research and practice. Their secondary goal is to demonstrate what it means to be a high-, medium-, or low-capacity school. Accordingly, they apply their components-based definition to data collected from 11 schools in Pennsylvania. After using the approach designed to assess school capacity, they classify each school as high, medium, or low and identify themes from the three resulting groups. This applied analysis allows them to provide a descriptive illustration of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges of each classification. (Contains 17 sources.)

Descriptors: Capacity Building, Program Content, Human Capital, School Personnel, Social Capital, School Culture, Alignment (Education), Educational Resources, Classification, Evaluation Criteria, Educational Change, Educational Improvement, Elementary Secondary Education

Consortium for Policy Research in Education. University of Pennsylvania, 3440 Market Street Suite 560, Philadelphia, PA 19104. Tel: 215-593-0700; Fax: 215-573-7914; e-mail: cpre[at]; Web site:

Autor: Beaver, Jessica K.; Weinbaum, Elliot H.


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