Mumbo Gumbo

By Ashtar Analeed Marcus — February 17, 2006 5 min read
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Each profession has its own insider language. Thick with acronyms and polysyllabics, such argot helps colleagues communicate complex ideas precisely and with as few words as possible. But even by the standards of technical talk, the jargon of education often seems unnecessarily, perhaps willfully, opaque—even to other educators. To the uninitiated, it can sound like speaking in tongues. Such doozies as “phonemic awareness,” “morphosyntactic skills,” and the constantly shifting quicksand of euphemistic acronyms—EALR, anyone?—can give fits to parents trying to read a report card, school board members trying to follow the money, and textbook writers just trying to stay afloat on the sea of verbosity.


The Lingo: Meaningful empowerment and area resource persons


The Confusion: These words, uttered by Grace Cook, an instructional coordinator for Louisiana’s St. John the Baptist Parish Schools, were part of a routine board presentation about how Title I money was being allocated. But to veteran school board member Russ Wise, they were a confirmation that Cook was speaking a foreign language. When she’d finished, Wise, a self-proclaimed campaigner for simple English, asked sharply for a translation. “Am I an area resource person?” he says today. “It’s one of these beautiful, high-flying phrases that defy interpretation.” He was particularly troubled that a report scheduled to go out to the public included both terms. “When we send form letters asking [parents] to come and discuss their kids, it’s not clear if we’re sending kids to an advanced course or sending them to jail,” he says.

The Solution: Do-over. District staff rewrote the report, adding an explanation that improving education with the help of “area resource persons” meant sheriff’s deputies and hospital officials would give students motivational speeches. As for the other phrase, “I hope that the people who read it felt empowered to accomplish whatever it is they hoped to accomplish,” Wise says. Though fewer questionable words have appeared in subsequent reports, some inevitably sneak through. And when that happens, he admits, “It’s best to nod and act as though I know what they were saying.”


The Lingo: GLEs and EALRs

The Confusion: When Spokane, Washington, parent Julie Bongard arrived for a parent-teacher conference at her son’s kindergarten classroom, she had her questions all prepared: How was Thor doing in class? Where did he need improvement? But by the time she left the school, bewildered by the teacher’s blizzard of acronyms and edu-speak, she had more questions than answers. “I didn’t really understand the language, so I’m thinking, Does [my son] need to read more?” Bongard says. “Do I need to give him more homework? Do I need to supervise? What do I need to do?” By the time the educator got to Thor’s progress in meeting “GLEs and EALRs,” Bongard recalls, “All I’m really hearing is like the teacher in Charlie Brown [cartoons]. You feel like a kid yourself.”

The Solution: Grow up. After seven years of baffling teacher conferences, during which Bongard eventually found out the acronyms stood for “grade-level expectations” and “essential academic learning requirements”—two standardized gauges of student progress—Thor graduated to Sacajawea Middle School. The new environment, she reports, offers an annual open house, complete with samples of coursework and explanations of teacher expectations. And with the parents outnumbering the teachers, Bongard noted with relief, plain English usually beats out gobbledygook.


The Lingo: Basals and ancillaries

The Confusion: Though educators often get the blame for disseminating edu-babble, even they can’t always decipher the elaborate stream of code that parades under their reading lamps. Such was the case recently at Shakespeare Squared, a Chicago-area educational writing company that provides content to textbook publishers, which the firm’s president sees as the source of educationese. “The root ... is the publishing industry,” says Kim Kleeman, a former English teacher. “They create the jargon and throw it around in e-mails and sales meetings and marketing materials, and it sort of filters its way in.” But one new employee—an accomplished educator and jaded veteran of many subspecies of teacher patois—was finally stumped by the latest batch of idiolect to land on her desk. Basals? Ancillaries? What’s the difference between a TWE, a PE, and an SE? She ended up returning the project to her boss unfinished. “Even though you are writing for a teacher, it’s still an entirely different beast than instruction in the classroom,” confesses the employee, who remains nameless at the company’s request.

The Solution: Define “solution.” Kleeman solved the immediate problem by reassigning the work, but the problem is pervasive enough that she also created a constantly updated glossary, including such words as “basal” (textbook) and “ancillary” (workbook). Weekly staff meetings are also held to keep up with the terminology, which often varies from publisher to publisher, supplemented by private meetings Kleeman holds with textbook reps.


The Lingo: Phonetic clues and math manipulatives

The Confusion: Of all modes of communicating information to parents, report cards have historically needed the least amount of explanation: An “A” is an A. An “F” is an F. But what’s a “math manipulative”? the flood of parents calling district headquarters wanted to know. “Almost meaningless” is what Hernando County school board vice chairman Jim Malcolm calls the term, along with the 30 other categories that used to festoon elementary-level grade reports sent home in the Florida district. “Parents want to know, ‘Can he or she read, or can’t she?’ ” says Malcolm, who taught high school social studies for 10 years. “They don’t talk about ‘phonemic awareness.’ ”

The Solution: Cut the crap. In response to the outcry, the abstruse language, including the terms above—which basically boil down, respectively, to sounding out words and using an abacus or other device to help learn math—were exorcised from report cards. In their place are the letter grades of yore, plus “satisfactory,” “unsatisfactory,” or “needs improvement” for kindergartners and 1st graders, says Hernando County schools curriculum specialist Elaine Wooten. Even the “teacher’s comments” section was purged; educators must now select from a list of preprinted, jargon-free options. As soon as the new cards came out, Malcolm says, “the phone stopped ringing. No complaints.”


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