Friday, August 3, 2012

A Primer For Understanding Educational Jargon When Used In A Political Context

Over the past two days*, Valerie Strauss has published two posts that give some of Joanne Yatvin's clarifications of educational jargon,  Today, Yatvin offered some some definitions of common educational jargon. Yesterday, she illustrated what some of the terms mean in context. Much of this jargon will be used throughout South Dakota and the rest of the country between now and election day, so I thought it would be helpful to combine some of Yatvin's definitions with her examples of their usage into a little primer.

Jargon often confuses people because it uses common words but alters the definition dramatically. For example, when one hears the term data, one usually thinks of the results of research. Yatvin's definition points out that data has a different meaning when politicians discuss education:
Data: Plentiful numbers that give very little useful information to schools or teachers.
She also shows how the skillful jargon users, whether they be politicians or textbook publishers, combine the common connotation with the jargony usage to obfuscate:
Our newly published reading program is research-based.

Meaning: Perhaps only one study supports the program’s methods, and that may be a study conducted by the author or publisher. Another possibility is that the program only superficially follows the methodology found effective by many studies.
Moving on to terms more specific to education, Yatvin helpfully defines reformers and the plans they produce:
School Reformers: People with impressive titles who have had little or no practical experience in schools.
School Reform Plans: Untested notions for improving public education, many of which have been tried before with negligible results.
Yatvin also concisely uses the fact that people "with impressive titles" are also known as experts to illustrate how the concept of reform is used in actual educational jargon:
A team of experts has reviewed the new standards and found them appropriate for children of this age.
Meaning: The experts selected were college professors, think tank members, and private sector consultants who may never have taught children or spent any time observing in classrooms. Very likely, no practicing teachers were considered “expert” enough to be included in the team.
Yatvin's most important contribution to understanding politicians' use of educational jargon comes when she unpacks a key phrase:
All schools in America should be showing high student achievement.
Meaning: Achievement means only improved test scores, which could be the result of intensive test preparation, student sub-group manipulation, or cheating. Moreover, achievement and learning are not synonymous.
She provides two definitions that illustrate why distinctions about achievement are important. Many of the reforms designed to produce high test scores rely on carrot and stick inducements:
Carrots and Sticks: Rewards and punishments—mostly punishments--intended to motivate schools to produce higher student test scores.
Merit pay is one inducement bandied about to improve test scores; it may be either a carrot or a stick:
Merit Pay:  Extra money given to teachers for raising test scores.  No better teaching required.
Politicians first started using political jargon after the passage of NCLB. Recently,the Obama administration has added a new term that may confuse some South Dakota voters:
The Department of Education has given many states NCLB waivers.

Meaning: The DOE has allowed some states to substitute their own plans for school improvement for the requirements of NCLB, as long as those plans are just as demanding or even more so.
In short, NCLB, the Obama administration's waivers, and most state reforms are designed to ensure accountability, a burdensome term:
Accountability: A government invented system that asks a great deal from public schools and gives little in return; it does not apply to charter schools.
*[Update]: This post originally attributed definitions to Strauss. I apologize for any confusion

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