Dr. Andy Hargreaves, a name familiar to many in education policy and practice, spoke to a group of Oregon educators, academics, and business and nonprofit leaders in downtown Portland on February 4th of this year. As is often the case with education policy, the room had its fair share of curiosities, some preconceptions, and a mixture of confidence, humility, conviction, and reserve.

Dr. Hargreaves, the Thomas More Brennan Chair in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, has attracted significant support from across the globe. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that he considers educational philosophy and practice of countless countries and communities around the world to be absolutely significant. He brings with him both anecdotes and concrete data from his research and experiences. This is beneficial not just because it’s inherently valuable to pay attention to the world around us, but because this approach encourages us to look at education not by itself, but as one component of many. This is at the heart of Dr. Hargreaves’ particular rendition of “social capital.”

Admittedly, at first glance, the term ‘social capital’ doesn’t strike one as a phrase that carries a ton of consideration for the human condition. But underneath, it houses a pretty simple concept: social networks have value. The community members and institutions around us matter. Actual collaboration—not simply doing one’s piece and passing the buck—matters. Not the most groundbreaking idea . . . one that any reasonable person or institution would have difficulty arguing against . . . but one that has pretty serious implications when addressing any societal problem—not solely education.

What makes this significant, I think, is that it means that individual merit does NOT guarantee social impact. Preparing ourselves in our respective vacuums (by individual, by district, by state, etc.) does not ensure progress. Of course an individual can have a profound impact—as we all know, the world’s greatest teachers could inspire students in a classroom without chairs. But whether this translates to widespread and long-standing social impact is another question. As even the most committed finger-pointing naysayer could attest: the stronger the community, the greater the chance each community member has of attaining his/her vision of success.

In the case of teaching, there’s no question a strong, supportive community plays a significant a role in a teacher’s abilities to impact a child. Dr. Hargreaves pointed out that community involvement can make an average teacher a great teacher. This reminds us that education is a collective concern with collective historical roots, that everyone in Oregon is responsible for both 1) the state’s public education shortcomings (i.e. poor graduation rates), and 2) sorting the problem out.

Dr. Hargreaves spoke in a hopeful tone, and I can see why: regardless of your political beliefs, or where you may stand on teacher training and evaluation, there is always a way to help (sidenote: issuing endless complaints without ever offering a solution does not constitute helping). Each of us is a member of some community, and we have the ability to do our part—even if that’s simply asking your local school what you can do for them.

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