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Posted at 08:00 AM ET, 08/02/2012

Education jargon: What ‘no excuses’ and other terms really mean

This was written by Joanne Yatvin, a vet­eran public school educator, author and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is now teaching part-time at Portland State University.

By Joanne Yatvin

Way back when I was a college student, one of my professors warned the class to avoid using jargon in our papers. By jargon he meant big words of indeterminate meaning. Ever since then I’ve tried to follow his advice in my own writing and to be aware of jargon in the writing of
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others. But I’ve also come to recognize that there are different kinds of jargon and at least one of them is justifiable. That jargon is a “shorthand” used in the technical literature of specialized fields to refer to complicated entities or processes that readers are already familiar with. By using jargon the writers avoid giving long and unnecessary explanations.

But what about other kinds of jargon? Well, some kinds may not carry much meaning, but they do serve the writers’ purposes. Take, for instance, the stock phrases used in formal or ritualistic communications, such as letters of application or notes of condolence. “Yours truly,” and “May you be comforted” don’t really say anything, but they do convey the message that the writer knows the rules and cares enough to write.

And, of course the whole field of advertising is riddled with jargon intended to impress people about the superiority of various products, while not promising anything so specific that it could trigger a lawsuit. We constantly hear or read such words as, “amazing,” “easy to use,” and “long-lasting.” This jargon often ensnares the gullible among us and even, sometimes, experienced consumers like me.

In addition, there is the jargon used in discussing politics and important public issues. That kind of jargon is not meaningless; it deliberately implies one thing while referring to something very different. In the current presidential race, for example, we hear one side call its candidate is a “job creator” because he headed a business for several years, but in fact his business closed American companies and sent jobs overseas.

From the other side we hear that its candidate wants tax cuts for the “middle class,” but what that term really means is people earning less than $250,000 a year, including the working poor. He uses it to appeal to the majority of people who want to believe they are part of that noble and hard-working layer of society.

Apart from politics, the most contentious public issue today is education. It is a polarized field, where all kinds of governmental bodies, organizations, think tanks, and citizen groups hold strong views about how schools should change or be managed and whether or not it would be better to privatize them altogether. At the same time, most people have little knowledge about the realities of education, basing their opinions on personal experience, their worldviews, and what their leaders tell them. Thus, the flow of jargon is plentiful and forceful, seeking to turn the tide of public opinion irrevocably in a particular direction.

As a life-long educator I can’t keep away from reading and listening to the various arguments about education and noticing the jargon. When I find some bit that seems especially misleading, I want to point it out to others and explain what it really means.

But there is a problem here: I am a partisan, on the side of public schools, career teachers, teachers unions, and progressive education. Although I know that they all have flaws, I still believe they are better intentioned and more often right than the groups that oppose them. So, perhaps it is not surprising that I find very little jargon in their arguments. That means that almost all the examples of misleading jargon I can point to come from the other side. Nevertheless, I will take the leap into ‘Jargonland’ below and hope that readers will see merit in my choices.

.Here are examples of sentences containing misleading jargon (in italics). Following are my explanations of what the jargon really means.

In many states teacher evaluations will now include the results of value-added assessments.

Meaning: Teachers will be judged in part by comparing students’ current test scores to those of the previous year. To what extent the teacher is responsible for the gains—or lack thereof—is debatable.

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.

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We should be educating the whole child.

Meaning: The writer disapproves of current educational reforms that minimize social, moral, physical, and imaginative learning in favor of a sole focus on academic learning.

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.

The new Common Core Standards are more rigorous than state standards.

Meaning: The CCSS are more difficult than those of most states, but not necessarily more appropriate for the designated grade levels or more in line with college or workplace expectations.

We are a “ no excuses ” school!

Meaning: The school has a strict set of rules and practices for teachers and students. Those who cannot or will not comply are asked to leave. The system is impractical for large public schools where total conformity cannot be enforced.

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.

We need to reform our failing schools .

Meaning: A school’s principal and teachers are to blame for students’ low test scores. They need to be removed or the school should be closed.

States should closely monitor and limit the proliferation of for-profit schools.

Meaning: You can’t trust schools run by businesses.

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.

I could go on pointing out more examples of misleading jargon in education, but I think there is enough here to reinforce the idea of “Reader beware!” I also suspect I’ve supplied enough fodder for those readers who would disagree with my choices or explanations. If so, in the spirit of this Olympic year, “Let the games begin!”

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