Will These Education Buzzwords Persevere Under Trump?

Ten concepts that gained lots of traction under the Obama administration

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PeopleImages / Getty / Paul Spella / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

School choice may be the popular kid in the education-jargon lunchroom right now, but it’s certainly not the only term that’s gotten a lot of buzz. Education Secretary-nominee Betsy DeVos will almost certainly bring with her a new set of vocabulary terms, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. Education Department will sharply depart from the education concepts the Obama administration either popularized or helped propagate. Education-related vocabulary tends to be needlessly clunky, but these 10 terms from the past eight years may—or may not—have some staying power.

Achievement Gap

Definition: When there is a statistically significant difference in two groups of students’ test scores, that difference is known as the achievement gap. Simply put, there is hard evidence of disparities in performance based on factors like race, gender, and socioeconomic status. One of the most mainstream of the buzzwords on this list, the existence of the achievement gap is oftentimes used as a catch-all to explain the failures of the education system to act as an engine of upward mobility.

Background: This term has been around for a while, but it gained extra prominence under the Obama administration. The National Center for Education Statistics has studied the achievement gaps between white and Hispanic students as well as white and black students, and one goal of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative was to help close these disparities. Some research shows charter schools—for which DeVos has strongly advocated—are effective in shrinking the achievement gap, though other research asserts the opposite. Ultimately, it would seem difficult for the new administration to shy away from referencing the phenomenon completely. The civil-rights issues exemplified by the achievement gap are, to a large extent, at the heart of the Department of Education’s existential purpose.

Here’s what former President Barack Obama said about achievement gaps in 2007:

Blacks are less likely in their schools to have adequate funding. We have less-qualified teachers in those schools. We have fewer textbooks in those schools. We got in some schools rats outnumbering computers. That's called the achievement gap. You've got a health care gap and you've got an achievement gap.

Links to some of The Atlantic’s past coverage:

How the Stress of Racism Affects Learning | Melinda Anderson

The Challenge of Educational Inequality | Ronald Brownstein

In Wealthier School Districts, Students Are Farther Apart | Emily DeRuy

The Ignored Science That Could Help Close the Achievement Gap | Hayley Glatter

In Pursuit of Integration | Alia Wong

How School Suspensions Push Black Students Behind | Alia Wong

Data-Driven Instruction

Definition: This model is a deliberate and systematic measurement approach to student improvement. Many explanations of data-driven instruction include a cyclical element: Students take some form of assessment, the results from that assessment are collected and considered, and action is taken in response to those results. Then the process begins again.

Background: Data-driven instruction seems antithetical to many of the other terms on this list. It feels sterile and narrow-minded in context with a “whole child” approach emphasizing soft skills and emotional growth. Libraries could be filled with the novels written about the short- and long-term problems with teaching to a test; standardized testing is an imperfect measurement, but data-driven instruction can go beyond Scantron tests and operate as a results-oriented model.

Links to some of The Atlantic’s past coverage:

What Happened to the Common Core Debate? | Priscilla Alvarez

The Data-Driven Parent | Mya Frazier

What Happens When Students Control Their Own Education? | Emily Richmond

The Disproportionate Stress Plaguing American Teachers | Timothy Walker


Definition: No, this isn’t a trick question. Failure is the opposite of success. A child fails when they have not adequately done something required, desired, or otherwise expected.

Background: Regardless of your partisan leanings, failure was not, in fact, invented by the Obama administration. What was popularized in recent years is the glamorization of failure—part of a pushback against the participation-trophy frenzy and part an acknowledgement that a perfect score on the test of life is not only impossible but also undesirable. Failure allows much of the education world’s favorite jargon to thrive: Students with grit will know how to overcome failure. Such perseverance is a noncognitive skill. Children with a growth mindset will see that they can, in fact, become more skilled at what they have failed at.

Links to some of The Atlantic’s past coverage:

Protect Your Kids From Failure | Alfie Kohn

Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail | Jessica Lahey

Flipped Classrooms

Definition: Teacher explains concept. Students complete homework. Lather. Rinse. Repeat for tomorrow.

Or not—at least, not if an educator is using the flipped-classroom model. Rather than spending time explaining concepts in class, this approach seeks to break the lecture-homework cycle by flipping it. Students are expected to watch video lectures on their own time and then engage in discussions, projects, and activities during class.

Background: Flipped classrooms are designed to improve student engagement in a course. The thinking goes that if they are actively discussing material with their peers and teachers in class, then they will learn and retain the information better. Students are more responsible for their own learning with this model, and instructors could be given “a better opportunity to detect errors in thinking,” according to the nonprofit Educause.

The flipped classroom could find some support in the new administration, as Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos has expressed support for online education.

Links to some of The Atlantic’s past coverage:

Should Colleges Really Eliminate the Lecture? | Christine Gross-Loh

The Post-Lecture Classroom: How Will Students Fare? | Robinson Meyer


Definition: Grit is about perseverance. It’s about resilience, stick-to-itiveness, and passion for the goals to which one applies a relentless can-do attitude.

Background: Grit is inherently connected to growth mindset (any student can develop grit, the wisdom goes) and non-cognitive skills. The psychologist Angela Duckworth, who wrote the book Grit, shows the appearance of the quality is a strong predictor of long-term academic success. Surely the story of Donald Trump and his supporters’ unexpected ascension to power can be peppered with examples of scrappy grit; there is a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps quality to many a story about Trump’s voter base. Whether the Education Department will continue to use the buzzword isn’t clear, but it seems unlikely that the new administration will divest from the narrative.

Duncan praised the role of grit in education in 2014 remarks:

As parents, we know that grit, resilience, patience, and many other skills can have just as great an effect on our students’ long-term prospects as their math and reading—their academic—skills.

Links to some of The Atlantic’s past coverage:

How Kids Learn Resilience | Pat Tough

Is Grit Overrated? | Jerry Useem

What Does It Mean to Have ‘Grit’ in the Classroom? | Mikhail Zinshteyn

Growth Mindset

Definition: Growth mindset can be placed firmly in the “nurture” side of the nature vs. nurture debate—the idea being that even the most basic abilities and brain functions can be improved with dedication and perseverance. Obstacles are not to be shied away from, but rather, seen as opportunities for problem-solving and progress. The counter to growth mindset is fixed mindset, or the notion that talent is unchangeable despite human effort.

Background: The Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck discovered growth mindset, and teachers who glommed on to the concept work to foster it in their students. Its application to education is readily apparent: If students believe they can, in fact, get smarter, then they will be invested in their studies, perform better academically, and be motivated to attack challenges confidently.

Growth mindset has an evil twin, though, known as “false growth mindset,” which typically constitutes hollow praise for effort and not an actual belief in the prospect of expanded ability.

Former U.S. Education Secretary John King has praised growth mindset on Twitter:

Links to some of The Atlantic’s past coverage:

How Praise Became a Consolation Prize | Christine Gross-Loh

100 Percent Is Overrated | James Hamblin

Noncognitive Skills

Definition: Like its pal “soft skills,” non-cognitive skills are qualities like integrity, drive, and creativity. Of course, “noncognitive” is a bit of a misnomer, considering social and emotional factors (don’t worry, more on those later!) are also brain-related. Basically, advocates for non-cognitive skills acknowledge that personality—in addition to reading and long division—has an effect on lifetime achievement.

Background: In the same way the whole-child model emphasizes developing healthy citizens, focusing on noncognitive skills moves the education conversation away from test scores and standardized metrics of achievement. The Every Student Succeeds Act places greater emphasis on noncognitive skills than have previous education-funding laws.

Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan had this to say about noncognitive skills in 2013:

[High-quality early learning] must be about the whole child and the whole family. High-quality preschool not only builds cognitive skills, it builds the noncognitive skills as well. It promotes healthy social, emotional, and physical development.

Links to some of The Atlantic’s past coverage:

What MOOCs Can’t Teach | Emma Green

Learning Empathy Through Dance | Audrey Cleo Yap

Why Kids Need Recess | Alia Wong

Why Civics Is About More Than Citizenship | Alia Wong

Social-Emotional Learning

Definition: There is a world outside the classroom, and social-emotional learning guides students through it. The framework is designed to cultivate qualities like empathy, emotional intelligence, and positive decision making.

Background: Again, social-emotional learning reinforces the idea that students are three-dimensional. They do not exist as just a test score, and developing goals related to self-awareness and relationships is an important aspect of education. There is a treasure-trove of research supporting the promotion of social-emotional learning and a generally well-rounded education. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, schools are expected to somehow measure social-emotional learning.

Former Secretary King said this in March 2016:

We want all students to have science, social studies, art, and music, and the opportunity to develop socio-emotional skills. We want a broader definition of educational excellence.

Links to some of The Atlantic’s past coverage:

When Social and Emotional Learning Is Key to College Success | Emmanuel Felton

The Preschooler's Empathy Void | Alia Wong


Definition: The Obama administration placed a special emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math; the “a” in STEAM rounds out this powerhouse of skills with the arts.

Background: STEM is an acknowledgement of the contemporary technological climate and the skills today’s students will need to succeed in that dynamic world. In 2009, the government launched the Education to Innovate initiative to better American students’ math and science skills in comparison to kids around the world. The White House website also boasts plans to increase STEM education for all types of students and positions mastery of these skills as a ladder of mobility.

Here’s a quote from Duncan when he outlined his vision for education reform in 2010 to UNESCO:

[New partnerships with other countries] also will require U.S. students to strengthen their skills in science, technology, engineering, and math—the STEM fields that anchor much of our innovation in the global economy.

Links to some of The Atlantic’s past coverage:

How to Get Students Interested in Space (and Science, and Math, and Engineering) | Megan Garber

Why Millennials &%#@! Love Science | Alexandra Ossola

Is the U.S. Focusing Too Much on STEM? | Alexandra Ossola

Whole Child

Definition: Educating the “whole child” strengthens the relationship between health and learning, though the term itself seems a bit like a parody of education jargon. The model focuses on skills and achievements that go beyond test scores and strictly academic growth—think community engagement, healthy living, mindfulness, and intellectual curiosity. Those who support the idea of the whole child advocate for a school environment that helps students become healthy, well-rounded citizens.

Background: The whole-child model was created by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) in conjunction with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the ASCD website, educators, families, and community members have a crucial hand in applying the whole-child structure and equipping children with contemporary skills: “A whole-child approach to education will develop and prepare students for the challenges and opportunities of today and tomorrow by addressing students' comprehensive needs through the shared responsibility.”

Links  to some of The Atlantic’s past coverage:

Zeroing out Zero Tolerance | Carly Berwick

When Mindfulness Meets the Classroom | Lauren Cassani Davis

Mantras Before Math Class | Jennie Rothenberg Gritz