Kindergarten student Yuliza Lemus uses the pointer as her classmates read sentences out loud at D.C.’s Powell Elementary School in 2011. (Marvin Joseph/WASHINGTON POST)

Emma Brown is a former middle school math teacher who covers D.C. schools for The Washington Post.

You walk into a District elementary school you’ve heard good things about, one of approximately 14 you’re considering for your pre-kindergartner. You recognize, from your own childhood, the brightly colored walls, the small plastic chairs and the teachers with inexplicably perfect penmanship.

What is new is the talk of “inclusion” and “self-regulation,” “authentic assessment” and “DIBELS” and “scaffolding” and, no joke, “positive behavioral interventions and supports.”

This is the flood of edu-jargon that administrators, teachers and even some parents use to explain what happens in this building.

You nod and smile. It appears you’re expected to understand this language. But you don’t, and neither do lots of other moms and dads who are deep in the drama of choosing a school.

In the District — home to a bigger proportion of public charter schools than anywhere in the nation except New Orleans, plus traditional public schools that accept out-of-boundary kids and private schools that accept federally funded vouchers — school choice isn’t an abstract philosophy. It’s a puzzle parents must figure out, and never so intensely as at this time of year, in the weeks leading up to annual school lotteries, most of which are held in late February and March.

Every night there is a different school to visit, another set of test scores and curricula and recess-to-class-time ratios to consider. It’s lovely that there are options. But it can be overwhelming.

“They all say they’re innovative or this or that,” one despairing mom told me recently. “They all end up sounding the same.”

So here is a glossary: nine oft-uttered education terms defined in plain English to help you translate what you’re hearing.

A simple glossary won’t solve some of your most pressing problems, of course. It won’t tell you which principals are responsive to children or which cafeteria lunches are palatable. (For that, you’ll need to find a way to visit on a regular day — open houses are a little too staged to judge a school’s quality.) Nor will it dissolve the anxiety of lottery season, the fear that your kid will get shut out of every school you like. (For that, you’ll need a stiff drink.)

But speaking the language is a start.


A child’s ability to make plans and follow through on them, resisting impulses and distractions and managing emotional upheavals along the way. Research says strong self-regulators are more likely to be successful — not just in school, but in relationships and in life. So teaching self-regulation is big in education these days, especially for the youngest kids.

Play-based learn·ing

Controlling impulses is not easy, as any serial dieter can attest. So how do you teach it? One method that’s in vogue: play. Not free-for-all play, but planned play. Children sit down to map out what they’re going to do beforehand (“Today, I’m going to pretend to be a hairdresser”). Afterward, they reflect on whether they stuck with their plan (“I got tired of being a hairdresser and decided to be a dragon”). This kind of play is a central part of Tools of the Mind, the early-childhood curriculum in many traditional D.C. schools.


Not construction equipment, scaffolding is edu-speak for giving children a little extra support so they can do something they’re not quite ready to do independently. Training wheels are scaffolding for riding a bike; riding a bike is scaffolding for riding with no hands. In school, it might be a teacher demonstrating how to write a complete sentence or asking pointed questions to help children think through a difficult math problem. As kids learn the new concept, they need less and less scaffolding, until eventually, they’re writing the sentences solving the problems on their own.

Au·then·tic as·sess·ment

Pretty much the opposite of a multiple-choice test, an authentic assessment asks kids to use what they know. A road test before getting a driver’s license? That’s an authentic assessment. So is writing a short story or a play, or designing a science fair project.


Pronounced “dibbles,” DIBELS is an acronym for “Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills.” It’s a test teachers use to gauge how well elementary school kids have mastered the building blocks of reading. Administered one-on-one, it measures a child’s ability to identify the different sounds that letters make, for example, and figure out how to pronounce unfamiliar words.

Pos·i·tive be·hav·ior·al in·ter·ven·tions and sup·ports

A Web site affiliated with the Department of Education says PBIS is “NOT a curriculum, intervention, or practice, but IS a decision making framework that guides selection, integration, and implementation of the best evidence-based academic and behavioral practices for improving important academic and behavior outcomes for all students.”


PBIS means that adults in a school have a coordinated, consistent way to define, encourage and reward good behavior. For example, teachers might acknowledge students acting appropriately — being kind or working hard — by doling out tickets that can be cashed in for treats.

The thinking is that if school is a warm and caring place where children know how they’re supposed to behave — and get extra help when they need it — then grown-ups can head off a lot of punishment and harsh discipline.


Instead of being segregated in different classrooms, kids with disabilities and those without learn together. In schools that practice inclusion, a general-education teacher is joined either by a second teacher with special-education expertise or by special-education aides. The idea is that everyone can benefit from more diverse classrooms.

Ka·gan struc·tures

These are techniques, based on the work of researcher Spencer Kagan, that teachers can use to get kids talking, sharing ideas and learning from one another, all while practicing skills — such as listening patiently — that can be difficult even for adults. In “think-pair-share,” for example, teachers pose a question and give students a few minutes to think it over. Then the students pair up to discuss it with a neighbor, and finally they share their discussion with the whole class.

Dif·fer·en·ti·a·ted in·struc·tion

A child who’s still learning to add might sit beside another in the same class who’s memorized multiplication tables up through the nines. A teacher who’s good at differentiation can figure out ways to challenge every kid at his own level, a skill that’s becoming more important — and more difficult — as separating students according to ability falls out of favor. Differentation is particularly crucial in mixed-age classes, including in Montessori schools.

Emma Brown is a former middle school math teacher who covers D.C. schools for The Washington Post.

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