Opinion

“Edu-speak” is a disease that undermines efforts to improve U.S. schools

Time to take a stand against confusing acronyms and overused jargon in education.

I was taking notes during one of those tedious but important school board meetings rookie reporters are assigned to cover when I realized I had no idea what was going on. Board members and various school officials spouted an inaccessible language of acronyms. The board members spent hours talking to and over one another, using terms that must have baffled audience members. I later learned they were discussing raising property taxes to boost the school budget, a critical issue local voters and parents needed to understand.

This was more than 25 years ago and I’ve been determined to eradicate jargon ever since. For education journalists, though, cutting through the argle bargle is a full-time job that distracts from what we should actually be doing: telling stories about how children are faring in American classrooms. I’m more convinced than ever that we can’t improve U.S. education until we figure out how to talk and write clearly about it. I despair each time I get yet another impossible-to-decipher research report or press release, and cringe when educators use phrases like “human capital” and “value propositions,” not to mention those endless acronyms: RTI, PLC, SLT, IEP, PD and LMS.

I’ve ranted about this before, but now I’m determined to fight back, and I’m urging all journalists who cover education to do the same. In the name of public service, let’s agree to stop abetting the school establishment’s “edu-speak.” Stop passing along empty buzzwords and clichés. Let’s finally make the conversation about challenges and solutions accessible to all. (For a look at how to apply a solutions approach to education journalism, see the Education Reporter’s Toolkit, something many of us at The Hechinger Report contributed to.)

Why do we need terms like “value-added,” or “formative assessments?” Ugh. Must we really be “intentional” or “empowering” when we talk about education? And can we please stop using “silver bullet” — a cliché you’ve heard as often as the assertion by everyone in education that they, unlike everyone else, put “children first.”

Don’t get me started on overused phrases like “grit” and “rigor,” along with “21st century skills” or “researched-based programs” that educate “the whole child.” As opposed to only half of a child? And what of charter-school movement lingo, replete with “restorative practices” and “growth mindsets”?

Related: Ball of confusion: How edu-speak leaves many parents behind

It’s not just educators who are to blame. The federal government is most certainly guilty as well for creating an alphabet soup of acronyms that bogs down stories about national education policy with explanations and parentheticals about what all the abbreviations mean before readers ever get to the point of whether the policies are actually working. Consider: ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act); NCLB (No Child Left Behind); and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top competition, also known as R2T, RTT or even RTTT.

There are SIG’s (school improvement grants,) the IDEA – Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, MOOCs (massive open online courses) and the CCSS, that is, the Common Core standards, along with the tests that accompany them, like PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium). Then there’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), which becomes “STEAM” when you add some art classes to the mix. We can’t talk about lagging U.S. student performance without tripping over TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) and NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress).

The legions of organizations that advocate for education are complicit here as well. Just try to decipher this recent press release about a new study proving rubric-based assessment can be taken to scale and can produce valid findings with credible and actionable information about student learning that can be used to improve curricular and assignment designs and to increase effectiveness of programs and classes in advancing the most important learning outcomes of college.”

While I’m at it, just how many different types of learning can there possibly be? Various groups are championing learning that is blended, personalized, universally designed, student-centered, deeper, individualized, competency-based and data-driven. At The Hechinger Report, we write about many of these, but we try hard to explain what they actually are and how they might change education. And we are always skeptical when anyone claims they can close the achievement gap, another overused phrase, along with the newly created “excellence gap.”

Related: Deeper learning improves student outcomes: But what is it?

I spent several days at a conference recently with a group of fascinating educators, advocates and policy-makers, all deeply knowledgeable and committed to improving education. In one-on-one chats over a beer or breakfast, they spoke clearly about problems and solutions. And they kept the tone entirely conversational when discussing our children’s classrooms and college choices.

But everything fell apart the minute we broke up into “enabling environments,” to revise “cluster logic models,” and “establish comprehensive assessment systems.” I decided to speak my mind.

“Please,’’ I implored, to blank stares: “Do we have to use those words?

There was polite laughter, but soon we were right back to “leveraging human capital” and “inseparable imperatives.”

More than ever, the public needs easily comprehensible information about what is going on in schools, what is working and what is not. So what’s an education journalist to do?

Insist that educators define the terms they are throwing out. Ask them for clear explanations. And don’t fall back on acronyms when real words will tell a truer story.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, and adapted from an article written for The Education Reporters Toolkit published by The Solutions Journalism Network.

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Liz Willen

Liz Willen, a longtime education reporter, has been proud to lead an award-winning staff of The Hechinger Report since 2011. She was recently honored for… See Archive