Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Jiving with Jargon: A 'Close Reading' of School Reform Euphemisms

Publication Date: 2015-05-02

Allen Koshewa, a longtime teacher, is the author of Discipline and Democracy: Teachers on Trial. For a joyful look at his classroom, see From Murder to Disco: An Opera Inquiry.

Below is a must-read examination of ed reform jargon. Besides being amusing, it's insightful-- right on target.

by Allen Koshewa

In writing a reflection on the maddeningly absurd euphemisms in the school reform world, I must start with the word "reform" itself. It sounds nice in the context of a juvenile delinquent to whom you would love to give a second chance as long as he learns to do the right thing and doesn’t sit next to you on the bus. But one product of the current school reform movement is a violent adolescent sitting next to you on the bus who was supposed to learn how to square a binomial but doesn’t know how to control his outrage over the fact that he flunked out of school because he couldn’t prioritize that task above more pertinent day-to-day survival tasks.

Susan Ohanian alluded to the fanaticism of reform soldiers when she dubbed them "standardistas" in 1999 (Ohanian, 1999) and henceforth I shall use the term to describe anyone who uses any of these terms with even a modicum of seriousness.

This alphabet book is merely a sampling of the jargon that runs through the wilderness of the school reform movement, but at least it provides a glimpse into its blustering pretension. Note that by substituting the definition for each term, the meaning of each "Example Sentence" becomes clearer.

Definition: Blamed
Example sentence: Teachers, not corporations, politicians, school boards, parents, or administrators, need to be accountable for all that’s wrong in education.

Accountability basically means that teachers need to make sure that their students who need dental surgery, breakfast, or a place to live should score as well as those who have grown up with books, first-rate health care, a nice home, and constant attention.

Of course some teachers need to improve, but as we know, being put down never lifts anyone up, and the percentage of teachers who aren’t working tirelessly to do what's best for kids is far smaller than what the standardistas would have the public believe.

Years ago, I was interviewed by a panel of public school principals for a coordinator job, and a principal asked me how I would be accountable for teachers who have no work ethic. I started my answer by saying, "First of all, I think even lazy teachers work hard." Everyone laughed. I was offered the job. I didn't take it. Being accountable for everyone else's deficient work ethic didn’t sound very gratifying.

Definition: Conformity
Example sentence: Curriculum alignment will help us make sure that we cover our asses -- ahem, bases.
There are two varieties of alignment: horizontal and vertical, and we are not talking about sex positions. Alignment is something our backbones should aspire to, but when schools aspire to it all of a sudden the curriculum becomes narrower and narrower as conformity settles over it like a thundercloud. Do we really want every student in every school to be doing the exact same thing so that we can proclaim deliriously that we are all smarter and more balanced? Do we really want subject matter to be militaristically uniform, with everyone having hit their learning targets successfully, like the apple on the head of William Tell's son? In the school reform world, the attendant risks of not hitting the target may be similarly lethal.

In theory, alignment ensures that students at every grade level study consistent but different content, but in practice it involves rearranging the same old bits and pieces of curriculum that have been taught for decades.

Definition: robot-like accuracy and speed
Example Sentence: Students who read with automaticity may have the monotonous and mindless expression of early computer voices but that doesn’t matter.

Automatic recall with speed and accuracy may be desirable when recalling a multiplication fact, but even in math relying solely on memorized facts to find the solution to a problem will obviate deeper understandings. Reading, like math, involves ongoing thinking as the reader constructs meaning. In reading, the common myth that students must "learn to read" by third grade, during which they suddenly "read to learn," implies that the complex task of reading can be figured out by third graders even though they have not been smart enough to learn anything from what they have read. Those who reify automaticity typically view reading as a mechanical process rather than a thinking process involving the use of various cueing systems (Goodman and Goodman, 2011). Louisa Cook Moats, the queen of automaticity, has claimed that we can’t read unless we can decode 96% of all words in a text with automaticity. I suppose, then, that no one can read the following sentence: What the @#$$ is going in education these days?

Definition: ways to ensure that some students fail
Example sentence: Establishing benchmarks will better allow us to find cruel and unusual ways to punish schools in which students don't sufficiently meet the benchmarks.

Under No Child Left Behind, ALL students were supposed to "meet" ALL benchmarks by 2014, as shown via standardized tests. Does it take a rocket scientist to understand that any test that all students could pass would have to be a very easy one? Ironically, when more students pass standardized tests, they are either rewritten to include more difficult items, the "cut scores" needed to pass are raised.

Theoretically, the standards are meant to prevent comparisons, but when test scores are regarded as a fixed measure of achievement even when invalid, districts inevitably use them for ranking. When test results either show a student meeting or not meeting benchmarks, success and failure can be clearly delineated. Some can sit and rest on the bench while others will never have a seat at the table.

Big Data
Definition: lots of information piled high and deep
Example sentence: Big people can wade through big data.

Big data constitute such a big mass of data that no one knows what to do with it. (By the way, have you ever seen a datum? Surely there is a singular piece of information somewhere).
Businesses are learning what to do with educational data, however. As more and more information piles up and data privacy weakens, the access to so much data is opening the floodgates for businesses who want to sell everything from “hooked on phonics” programs to designer tests.

Common Core State Standards
Definition: the latest mandates
Example sentence: My state implements Common Core State Standards more rigorously than your state.

The common core state standards might be common but are they really standard? Do we really all know how to "identify zeros of polynomials when suitable factorizations are available, and use the zeros to construct a rough graph of the function defined by the polynomial"? (CCSS) And can we all "consult specialized reference materials" in order to "determine etymology"?

And do these standards represent the core of what we need to know in life? Do kindergarteners really need to "name the author and illustrator of a story and define the role of each in telling the story"? (CCSS, 2015). Perhaps David Coleman and the other creators of the CCSS should first tell teachers exactly how the author and illustrator roles should be defined. And does Coleman remember the author and illustrator of every book he has ever read?

First graders must "produce and expand complete simple and compound declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory sentences in response to prompts." Does this mean that teachers must prompt first graders to expand the exclamatory sentence, "Wow!"?

Fourth graders must "refer to the structural elements of poems (e.g., verse, rhythm, meter) and drama (e.g., casts of characters, settings, descriptions, dialogue, stage directions) when writing or speaking about a text." Do fourth graders really need to refer to structural elements of poems whenever they talk about one? If one of my friends started talking about iambic pentameter after I shared a poem with him, I would probably tell him to get a life.

Definition: other people’s curriculum
Example sentence: We need coordinators to ensure that curriculum is implemented otherwise teachers would not be implementing curriculum.

Twenty years ago, Arthur Applebee wrote about "curriculum as conversation," (Applebee, 1996), stressing that knowledge always needs to be contextualized. When curriculum is viewed as a long list of pre-established standards to cram down people's throats during a limited duration of time, teachers have no time to really figure out what the real-world context of those standards might be, nor is there an opportunity for students and teachers to create their own curriculum.

Definition: information piled high and deep (see big data, above)
Example sentence: The new policy requires that we check the district data on behavior referrals to figure out whether students get into more fights during recess than during math, thus allowing teachers to add new data to preexisting data, even though they'd already figured out that more fights happen during recess than during math.

Special education administrators have loved this term for years but now it has leaked into the general school reform jargon. The term data, in the school reform movement, refers only to quantitative data -- banish the thought that we should pay attention to the quality of learning experiences! Some uses of school data may still be relevant, such as counting heads to make sure everybody made it back onto the bus after a field trip. These days, however, administrators are typically counting how many interventions teachers have tried with a sociopathic student during three months of disruption to see if the teacher has tried enough interventions to be able to ask for help.

Science historian Theodore Porter wrote that, "Reliance on numbers and quantitative manipulation minimizes the need for intimate knowledge and personal trust" (Porter, 1996). A few years ago, when I talked to members of my district's school board in Oregon about my student who was a refugee from the Congo Republic, they at first appeared interested but in reality they just wanted him to pass the damn tests and make the district's numbers look good; they made no effort to change the policies that reified data over student needs.

Acronym for: Decoding Instantly Becoming Endless Lists of Sounds
Example sentence: Let's DIBEL (pronounced "dibble") that student to death!

This actually stands for Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, and school reformers love this "screening device" that has become a way to pronounce a gloomy future for kindergarten children. Funny that the creators and proponents of DIBELS pronounce the acronym "dibbles" instead of "die-bulls" even though the assessment is meant to find out if five-year-olds can apply phonics rules successfully.

The principal reading mastery that DIBELS is meant to "indicate" is whether or not children can rapidly break every word into its discrete phonemes (with the word "kind" becoming a four-syllable word: "kuh-eye-un-duh"). Doing this supposedly "proves" they can read -- never mind the fact that if we all read that way we would be gone with the wind before we could finish reading Gone With the Wind. Apparently, the more words that toddlers can separate into these distinct sounds within a minute, the better their credentials for Harvard.

My favorite DIBELS assessment, however, is the "reading comprehension" assessment. At first it sounds sensible, as the foundation is having children retell a passage they have just read. But of course a DIBELS assessment cannot be sensible, so this one not only has a one-minute limitation for the retell, but it is scored by the number of words the child says, regardless of whether or not the retell has anything to do with the passage that the child has read.

"Dibblers" and other dabblers in school reform have a hard time understanding that if you can't coherently talk about what you have just read, you ain't really read it.

Direct Instruction
Definition: marine sergeant-style drilling
Example sentence: Without direct instruction, no child would ever learn anything.

Although this term has been around a long time, its use was popularized by Siegfried Engelmann (Engelmann, 1966 -- this is a wonderful YouTube link of Engelmann implementing Direct Instruction). Engelmann loved having students shout out answers in unison as he shouted out questions. The problem, of course, is that the students who already know the answer lead the mindless chants and the ones who trail along, although they may memorize the patterns, are never given the opportunity to figure out the answers themselves.

High-Performing Teachers
Definition: politically correct teachers whose students have made good test scores
Example Sentence: Let's reward high-performing teachers by giving them more pay and more students.

The problem of course, is how performance is measured. With the school reform obsession with standards, performance is always linked to multiple-choice tests on content from the standards. Standardistas like it when teachers overcome the odds with high test scores because then they can claim that class size doesn't matter; just put a good teacher in front of kids, they say, and they will all learn. It may be true that a superior teacher will teach a group of 34 students better than a poor teacher will teach a group of 17, but that doesn't mean that the superior teacher has twice the amount of time in a day to spend on responding to papers or more time to chase a distraught kid who has run down the hallway. And incidentally, the likelihood of having a screamer, hitter, or runner in a given class is obviously greater the more students one has.

Learning Targets
Definition: objectives you must meet -- or else face the consequences!
Example sentence: If you don't post your learning targets, students will not know what they are learning.

Actually, teachers have talked about learning objectives for over a century, but now they are called "targets" -- something to hit with bullet-like precision. And the stakes for not hitting the bull's eye are high. In other words, learn or die!

The popular "learning targets" approach maintains that unless you know exactly what you’re going to learn before you learn it and know exactly how you're going to know that you know that you've learned it, you won't learn it. It makes learning, which can bristle with life and discovery, akin to a dartboard game, with students trying to hit the central "outcome" as if nothing outside of it matters.

Definition: "Been there, done that!"
Example sentence: Just as practice makes perfect, repetition leads to mastery.

Akin to automaticity, "mastery" implies, "I've learned it; I never have to think about it or apply it again." Content is something to be controlled, pounded into submission, whipped as a master might whip a slave. Efficient teachers are said to "teach to mastery" as they race from topic to topic, checking off the endless list of skills and standards they have covered.

Definition: a Dog and Pony Show
Example Sentence: Teachers will not know whether or not children have learned anything unless the learning can be demonstrated through performance.

"Closing the achievement gap" sounds well and good, except that the underlying premise, that those who are behind need to catch up, is a bit unfair. I am not suggesting that we have low expectations for children in poverty, children with disabilities, or children who have not yet acquired English. I am not suggesting that we have low expectations for any students; indeed my pet peeve is underestimating children. But labeling them as failures when they don't "perform" as well as more advantaged children is unfair at best. Would we expect someone with no shoes to run twice as fast as someone wearing the latest Nikes?

Definition: mass firing
Example Sentence: Schools that don't perform should be subject to reconstitution.

During the recent history of school reform, the schools that haven't met benchmarks, aligned curriculum, supplied the right data, shown sufficient accountability, tightened their belts, and proven high performance become “"econstituted" -- but don’t make the mistake of thinking that they have become shored up or fortified with vitamins like those in reconstituted orange juice. Instead of being built up via extra funding, professional development opportunities for teachers, and "wraparound" social services for students and their families, reconstitution means destroying the school community by firing (or transferring if the union has a hissy fit) all of the teachers at the school. Under the many years of "No Child Left Behind" reconstitution basically meant that a school that didn't have a certain percentage of students meeting the benchmarks would bite the dust. After the mass firing, newcomers with no understanding of the school history gain all the decision-making power at the school. Typically, a principal of a reconstituted school in which test scores have gone up is given all the credit and either promoted or sent to another “failing” school. When the latter happens, rarely is the second time a charm.

Definition: harder and more frustrating work
Example Sentence: If curriculum is infused with more rigor, more parents can start thinking of which college their child can enter as they rock the child's cradle.

I used to be proud of being rigorous, of aiming high and then rushing in to support students when they couldn't reach the lofty aims to which I aspired. But now that the school reform movement has championed rigor as the lockstep implementation of standards, I can't bring myself to use the term. As befitting the standards movement, rigor has become a way to ensure that some students succeed and others fail.
Rigor without flexibility becomes rigid curriculum. Joanne Yatvin (2012) has advocated replacing "rigor" with "vigor" and points out that "rigor" is commonly associated with "mortis" and is a misleading description of educational excellence.

Smarter Balanced Assessments
Definition: yet more multiple choice tests; here we go again!
Example sentence: Whether or not students meet the Common Core State Standards should not be determined via Stupider Balanced Assessments but rather by Smarter Balanced Assessments.

Standardized tests are increasingly about dividing and conquering, control, and consumerism. No longer are they tests that teachers can scrutinize to analyze students' thinking; indeed, teachers risk losing their licenses, or worse, if they even look at test items. One can, however, look at the standards the SBA is meant to assess with one flick of the finger (see Common Core State Standards, above). Now that more and more people must take the SBAC, more students can be labeled as failures, more teachers can be proclaimed incompetent, and more schools can be reconstituted. Yipee!

Strategic Abandonment
Definition: throwing out the bathwater instead of the baby
Example Sentence: As we add more and more curriculum perhaps we should think about strategic abandonment.

This is basically eduspeak for getting rid of curriculum you don't need or have time for. Most teachers do this unofficially but hardly anyone is allowed to do it openly and proudly.

I ditched a number of standards for years (in a Title I elementary school serving a high-poverty community) so that my fourth-grade students could write their own musical plays, make the sets and costumes, and perform in them. At the end of one of those years, a committee examining attendance data asked me if I knew why my class was the only one in the school that had perfect attendance for two months. When I said, "The play," the principal then investigated to see if my students' subsequent test scores were below that of their peers in other fourth grade classes. They weren't. But were other teachers encouraged to depart from the standards? No.

Read alouds, music, art, silent reading, free play, drama, board games, and field trips are among the many casualties of the standards movement. If only we could abandon the skills on the checklist instead!

Tightening our Belts
Definition: less money, better test scores
Example Sentence: Of course there is no need for new playground equipment; instead we must focus on tightening our belts.

This is standardista talk for saying, "We want to cut the money going to schools while improving student performance." They seem to forget that too much belt tightening is bad for the internal organs. The kind of belt tightening the standardistas are actually referring to usually results in inferior libraries (often with no librarian at the helm), rundown schools, and little or no money for the arts.

Twenty-First Century Skills
Definition: Neanderthal skills + a little bit of technology
Example Sentence: If we want everyone to get good-paying jobs, we'd better make sure that education emphasizes twenty-first century skills.

Funny that no one in the world needed communication, collaboration, creativity, or critical thinking until the 21st century rolled around. And funny that menial, fifteenth-century jobs still need to be done and utilize the exact same skills that were required in the fifteenth century.

I am as willing as the next Joe to acknowledge that the instant access to information should change how we teach and learn; even publishers have acknowledged this with their "strategic abandonment" of encyclopedias. What standardistas don't get, however, is that what are commonly cited as 21st century skills are not new components of learning discovered by school reformers. What are cited as 21st century skills are usually not skills at all: Rather than being mechanical abilities that we simply produce like a knee-jerk reflex, they are instead strategies which have required consideration of both purpose and sociocultural contexts for successful application-- whether applied during the time of the Roman Empire or today. Were the people who designed microchips smarter than the people who designed the first aqueducts? Is innovation really something new? Is reform really reforming anything?

Definition: proving that we're paying attention to
Example sentence: Let's have another faculty meeting so that we can begin unpacking the new standards to ensure curriculum alignment.

When the term "unpacking" began proliferating in academic circles two decades ago, it meant “interpreting” and was usually used in conjunction with "theory." But now people are mostly unpacking standards and not much else. Administrators ask teachers to unpack standards with the same eagerness as a parent might ask a child to unpack a swimsuit during a beach vacation. As you can imagine, the teachers’ response is not gleefulness.

Actually the reform movement makes me want to pack up all my cares and woes and say “bye bye” but instead I have to unpack the cares and woes inflicted upon me by the standardistas who insist upon more and more mandates for teachers. If only I could send the standardistas packing so that they could unpack all their mandates with their cronies and leave the rest of us alone.

Applebee, Arthur. 1996. Curriculum as conversation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

CCSS. 2015. http://www.corestandards.org

Engelmann, Siegfried. Direct Instruction Archive -- Arithmetic. YouTube

Goodman, Kenneth and Yetta Goodman. 2011. "Learning to read: A comprehensive model." In Reclaiming Reading: Teachers, students, and researchers regaining spaces for thinking and action. New York: Routledge.

Ohanian, Susan. 1999. One size fits few: The folly of educational standards. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Porter, Theodore. 1995. Trust in numbers: The pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Yatvin, Joanne. 2012. What schools need: Vigor instead of rigor. Washington Post Answer Sheet

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.