The third grade Virginia Standards of Learning in Social Studies (Virginia’s version of the Common Core) define community as a place where people work, live, and play (3.10). This definition is too limited. Community is deep and broad and soars through imagination. It is what happens when like-minded people work together, or when people with differences turn their hearts and minds to common purpose. Community is a place, but it is also a result. Community’s parameters can be infinite with online communities and social networks, and yet, community remains the place where you are, the place where you care, and the place where you work with others to make a difference.
Words transform. Words are big and beautiful and powerful. They help us reach and they help us dig deep. Words are the tools of the educated person. Words change hearts. Words change minds. And sometimes words change. Reform used to be a positive word.
John Dewey wrote, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.”
John Dewey is not writing about a place where people live, work, and play. He is writing about a group of concerned citizens who pool their sense of possibility for all. Idea is only one letter short of ideal, but it can be so much narrower. No one would call “school reform” an ideal. It is a movement without grace. I have watched this idea of reform intently as I have held on to my ideal of public education. There is less talk about citizens and more talk about “workers.” Reformers say that our graduates are not “work ready,” and yet our current graduates are the result of this school reform.
The goal posts move. It is not enough for our schools to pass; children have to continue to pass at higher rates every year or a school doesn’t “show improvement.” And now the tests are changing to show “critical thinking.” This leaves me to wonder if the meaning of critical thinking has changed, too. Language is crucial to critical thinking. Test-ready definitions are too narrow and result in narrow thinking– the antithesis of critical thinking.
We need standards. We need common standards. We need high standards. Standards guide what we teach, but they should not be used to bully administrators, teachers, and children. They should guide conversation and experience and expand our intellectual lexicon. School reform should not turn our classrooms into reform schools. True school improvement is not an abstract policy movement about educating other people’s children. Real school improvement is grounded in the reflective practice of real teachers who are passionate about what works for our children. Class size matters in this work. Effective classrooms are places rich with language and literature and ideas and problem solving. The health of our community depends on it.