On my last day in Reggio Emilia, I listened to the father of an autistic boy speak about his family’s and his son’s educational experience and their dreams. We all have dreams for our children but he emphasized the importance of learning to observe to understand a child’s reality before beginning to dream. In Reggio Emilia, each child’s reality is co-constructed by parents, educators and other specialists in the learning community who consider their Core Responsibility to be to fulfill and expand all of that child’s potential.

This Core Responsibility of fulfilling and expanding all of the potential of every child is obviously not unique to the educators in Reggio Emilia. What I think sets Reggio apart is the connection of this responsibility to the rights of the child and the coherence of a system that allows teachers to focus on their Core Responsibility.

Most educators work in systems that are structured around common academic standards. These standards provide grade level benchmarks and indicators that enable educators to academically assess a child and inform instructional planning and practices. I believe that common academic standards are an indispensable component of any curriculum framework. I also believe that standardized testing aligned to common academic standards has an important role to play.

Asking all children to do the same thing at the same pace does not value the subjectivity of children and will inevitably exclude some children from fulfilling and expanding their potential. But I believe that educators can value the subjectivity of each child in the context of common academic standards and standardized testing – as long as the standards and assessments are being used in conjunction with observation to better understand each child’s reality. Standards and standardized assessments should be used by educators to inform the execution of their Core Responsibility.

This is quite different to educators being held responsible for every child (or even a percentage of children) performing at grade level. Performing at grade level is not every child’s reality and every educator knows that. When we obsess over how many students in a grade or school are below, at, or above grade level we lose sight of each child’s subjectivity and our Core Responsibility to each child is compromised. To avoid this, we need to focus on the growth of the child irrespective of their reality or starting point. An improvement of 30 percentile points in a standardized test is significant growth but it might not be enough for that child to be considered at grade level. At the other end of the scale, a 10 percentile point drop might not affect another child’s above grade level rating. We must also note that standardized assessments are notoriously bad at identifying the reality of some children. Standardized assessment data can only be considered part of a child’s academic profile and must be complemented by teacher observation and alternative assessment data.

A focus on the growth of children is hardly new nor controversial and it is compatible with an educator’s Core Responsibility to fulfill and expand all of the potential of every child. Nonetheless, if educators are to be able to confidently devote the time and energy required to honour the rights of each child in their class, this focus on growth must be explicitly promoted and supported by all in the learning community.

I am sure it is clear that I am still processing my Reggio Emilia experience. My sense of responsibility as a school leader will continue to develop as I keep processing it and contemplating my responsibility in terms of helping others honour the rights of children has certainly given me a clarity of purpose that I hope to share with others.