POLITICS OF EDUCATION ASSOCIATION YEARBOOK, 1996, 13-20
David N. Plank
Michigan State University
When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less. (Lewis Carol)
Community is surely one of the most frequently used and abused words in educational policy literature. Analysts from all points on the political spectrum affirm the virtue and value of communities as an essential source of support for schools and as the guarantors of accountability in the educational system. Educators are enjoined from all sides to work in closer harmony with the community in order to fit their practice to local needs and better serve their students. Shifting a greater share of responsibility to the community is adduced as the solution to a host of problems, both in the USA and abroad.
Community is a universally popular term for educational policy becaue it encompasses many different meanings; all can agree that closer ties to the community are a good thing, as long as the term remains undefined. This apparent consensus quickly breaks down, however, in the face of inevitable disagreements about the character and size of the relevant community in particular contexts.
In this essay I seek to bring some clarity to current policy discussions by exploring some of the many meanings encompassed in the term community. In the following section I identify several of the unexamined ambiguities and oppositions encountered in recent scholarly writing about the importance of community for educational policy. In the third section I present a partial survey of the types of communities that educators might actually encounter as they venture out to look for community linkages or community support. In the final section I discuss the implications of the preceding analysis for current debates on educational reform. I conclude that affirmations of community in contemporary policy debates may often be damaging rather than helpful, for two main reasons. First, the community that is commonly invoked by policy analysts does not exist, either because it has vanished forever or because it remains to be created. Second, the community that exists in fact is often very different from the one imagined by analysts. Shifting power and responsibility to the community may therefore have unexpected and pernicious consequences.
0268-0939/97 $12 · 00 © 1997 Taylor & Francis Ltd.