Why Education Reporting Is So Boring

One word: edu-speak

One easy way to "amaze" your education colleagues, according to this jargon generator, is as simple as clicking a button at the top of the page. I click that button often—daily, even. Like a slot machine, every result involves some combination of symbols. In this case, those symbols are words that an algorithm arbitrarily strings together into a sentence.

On a recent afternoon I clicked the button and got "We will empower research-based relationships throughout multiple modalities." Ooh. That had a nice ring to it, but in the pursuit of more amazingness, I clicked again: "We will recontextualize holistic mastery learning with a laser-like focus." Double ooh; I was hooked. Again, again! "We will utilize flipped inquiry through the experiential-based learning process."

On a roll, I let myself do it once more. It turned out to be my favorite result of the day: "We will assess emerging curriculum compacting across cognitive and affective domains." This would surely impress, I thought.

… Not.

No, you’re not dumb. No, those phrases aren't smart. And no, writing them out definitely didn't make me amazing. However, many of the policymakers and pundits (and even journalists!) who help shape education reform would probably argue there’s value to using them. Edu-speak—the incomprehensible babble used to describe what are often relatively straightforward teaching methods, learning styles, and classroom designs—is plaguing the country’s schools. Intended to help people understand education reform, edu-speak often ends up doing the exact opposite: It muddles those reform strategies and, left unchecked, it could end up making positive change a lot more difficult to achieve. As Liz Willen, the editor of The Hechinger Report, wrote in 2013, it all adds up to a "communication breakdown that hampers education reform." Just like its cousins in the corporate or legal worlds—synergy! Ex parte!—such jargon only adds confusion to already-confusing things.

Parents get status reports on their kids and are baffled as to what half of the words mean. Teachers are ordered to alter their instruction but left unsure of what they’re actually being ordered to do. Kids are told to take random tests with weird names and remain unconvinced they’re doing anything productive. Journalists like me transcribe soliloquies at school board meetings and legislative hearings, dreading all the translation that we’ll have to do later.

The jargon-generating website is meant to underscore how absurd this linguistic shorthand actually is. I do visit it regularly, though just to have a good chuckle (and remind myself not to go to the dark side). Hopefully it will also knock some sense into the people who think such language makes their ideas sound smart.

Edu-speak isn’t anything new, but it seems to be everywhere now that talk of education reform is increasingly seeping beyond the walls of legislative buildings and board rooms and into everyday discussions. Members of the public now are much more knowledgeable—and inquisitive—about what happens in the classroom than they were in the past, according to David Griffith, the Director of Public Policy at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. These conversations about reform are the centerpieces of back-to-school nights and parent-teacher meetings, publicized political debates and Tumblr blogs. It’s no wonder, then, that education reform has become somewhat of a media darling in its own right—and that the language surrounding it merits its own 245-page, Amazon.com-sold glossary.

The Common Core State Standards (pardon me—the CCSS) dominate news articles and talk shows, as do the new tests meant to gauge if kids are meeting those and other benchmarks, like the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), the NAEP, and so on. Will the CCSS help advance STEM, and can MOOCs play a role? Are formative assessments the best way to ensure accountability or should we stick with summative evaluations?

It’s difficult to see how these types of phrases, this acronym overload, make talking about—and achieving reform—any easier. If anything, it makes these activities something that overwhelms teachers and parents and, ultimately, gives much education reporting its reputation for being boring and stodgy.

The advent of edu-speak dates back to the Bush initiative of No Child Left Behind (which has since gained notoriety for reasons beyond, of course, its obsession with acronyms). Griffith joked about a meeting he attended once at which someone kept referring to the "nickleby" reforms. "Nickleby?" he thought, embarrassed about his ignorance. But he soon realized that this person was referring to No Child Left Behind—or NCLB (otherwise known, as many will quickly add, as the "reauthorization of the ESEA").

But the phenomenon has persisted under the Obama administration, whose Race to the Top competition divvied up billions of federal dollars among select states that promised to implement a range of more jargon-laden reforms: educator effectiveness, school-turnarounds, and capacity-building, to name a few. (For its part, Race to the Top, according to Wikipedia, is also known as R2T, RTTT, or RTT.)

Griffith suggested that numerous forces are behind the jargon. For one, there’s what he called the "euphemism factor"—the "big-picture, bloviating factor." "Using these terms is an attempt to make you seem ‘the expert,’ or smarter, or insider-y: ‘I’m hip, I’m well-versed,’" Griffith said. "But at some point it becomes a parody of itself. You can throw a couple grand concepts together that sound very visionary, very big picture, but when you step back you’re not saying much."

Meanwhile, edu-speak is often a valid symptom of the complexities that comprise education, said Griffith, adding that some reporters have a tendency to over-distill the issues. "Words matter, and educators are very sensitive to that," he said. Sometimes, a jargon-infused phrase is the only—and best—way to describe an idea.

But it rarely is. Writing guru Roy Peter Clark, the vice president and a senior scholar at The Poynter Institute, a journalism school and training center, sent me an email with this story:

I once did a workshop for teachers at an elementary school that was dedicated to writing as the driving force of the curriculum. I asked them if they had a mission statement. The principal said, yes, they did. In fact, it was framed in the administrative office. She sent someone to get it. When I saw how it was clotted with jargon, I took it from the principal, put it in my briefcase, and refused to return it. Essentially, I stole their mission statement. A month later, they sent me their new mission statement: "Learning to write. Writing to learn." There you go.

Much of the education reporting Americans read today takes the wrong approach to covering the controversies and minutiae in the field. The bettering of the country’s teachers is a favorite topic. Are they preparing America’s children to be "21st-century learners"? Are they appropriately intervening? Are they differentiating their curricula? There’s nothing inherently wrong with asking these questions. In fact, those are the questions the news media should be asking—but not exclusively, and definitely sans jargon.

Making room in education news for the less-wonky stuff helps the non-wonks engage in dialogue about improving schools and universities; it ensures that a cross-section of people comes to the table and helps shape how students learn and advance in the world. Readers need to understand why the collision of new learning standards and harsh teacher evaluations is getting in the way of student achievement, for example, and question whether today’s standardized tests are merely teaching children to master a few mnemonic tricks. But it’s just as enlightening to learn that colleges these days are increasingly offering off-the-wall courses such as a class called Wasting Time on the Internet. Or to explore why some gay teachers decide decide not to come out to their students.

This balance should apply in all kinds of contexts. Policy, reform, and—dare I say it—pedagogy discussions are integral to understanding and improving the activities that shape kids’ learning. But so are discussions about the tangible, real-world stuff: things that don’t make the average Joe’s eyes glaze over, topics that resonate even with the people who don’t have kids, who don’t teach kids, and who aren’t kids (or young adults) themselves.