Meaning Matters


Reflecting on the recent Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, Thyra VanKeeken  wrote, “Words matter—the right words can help to speak a new world into being. And words also have the power to tear things down. Words can build and connect community. Words can also hurt us. Words have power.” [1]

This is true in writing.  It is also true in politics, in everyday conversation, and in our schools.  If we are serious about working to improve the education of all students, we need to recognize that words are important and meaning matters. 

Kevin Kumashiro has articulated this in his discussion of how there seems to exist a “common sense” view of education in our country.  The problem with this approach to school improvement is that it does not tell us “what schools could be doing.”  Instead it assumes that it has the answer to “what schools should be doing.”  Kumashiro argues that in order to seek fundamental school improvement, we “first must redefine common sense and reframe how we think about education.” [2].

When we receive the latest report of gaps in achievement, then, we need to remember to focus less on the racial and socio-economic achievement gap and pay more attention to the opportunity gap that exists because of inequalities in housing, healthcare, school funding, and educational resources.  Similarly, we need to be clear about what we mean by educational accountability.   This has been a hot button issue in education for quite a while.  School reformers and politicians alike love to talk about it.  Problems arise, however, when we blindly accept a “common sense” attitude to accountability and fail to think clearly about what we mean, or maybe what we should mean.  For many educators, accountability has turned into a red flag term that conjures images of standardized testing, political agendas, and problematic teacher evaluation systems.  What happens when the conversation changes to a focus on what Deborah Meier calls authentic accountability: “accountability for meeting the actual educational and professional aims set by those working day in and day out with individual students and their families” [3]?  What might be the result of holding our political leaders accountable to providing schools and teachers with the resources needed to provide a quality education to all students?  Clearly meaning matters. 

We also need to be clear about what we mean by public education.  In current debates about public schools, their effectiveness or lack thereof, and how to reform our educational system, we’ve reduced the meaning of public to how schools are financed.  We need, instead, to reclaim a vision of the public good, embrace the values of equality and justice, and pursue a vision of public schools that is “predicated on the notion that you’re concerned about other’s people’s kids, just not your own kids” [4].

Words are indeed powerful, and the meaning we give to them matters.  If we are dedicated to improving the educational experience of all students, and we should be, then we can’t be satisfied with “common sense” assumptions about teaching and learning.  Our students deserve better.


[2] Kumashiro, K. (2008). The seducation of common sense: How the right has framed the debate on America’s schools. New York: Teachers College Press, page 5.

[3] Meier, D., & Gasoi, E. (2017). These schools belong to you and me: Why we can’t afford to abandon our public schools. Boston: Beacon Press, page 114.

[4] Cornel West in “Tavis Smiley Presents: Poverty in America”, January 17, 2013