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Education Opinion

10 School Reform Phrases That Should Trigger Your BS Detector

By Rick Hess — July 21, 2014 2 min read
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Education is filled with jargon, buzzwords, and BS. I’ve had a lot of fun over the years skewering the inanity that gets bandied about in education research and professional development. Education policy and school reform are rife with their own vapid vocabulary.

It’s worth flagging this stuff. Doing so reminds us that fatuous phrases don’t make problems go away. It helps puncture sugarplum visions fueled by hot air. Left unchallenged, pat phrases allow wishful thinking to stand in for messy realities. After all, these fatuous phrases are pervasive. Hell, I’ve lapsed into using them...plenty of times. So this is less about calling anybody out than ensuring that we don’t let pleasant words stand in for careful thinking. Here are 10 phrases that, when heard, should cause listeners to ask the speaker to explain what he or she means, using words that actually mean something:

10. Turning around schools: This is very different from those earlier efforts, like “effective schools research” and “comprehensive school reform,” that apparently sought to help schools stagnate.

9. Equitable distribution of effective teachers: I think I’m for this, but I just don’t know what we mean by “equitable” or “effective.” Are “effective” teachers just those who score well on state evaluation systems? Either way, I’d love someone to explain what an “equitable” distribution looks like.

8. Smart regulation: You know, as opposed to those championing “dumb regulation.” A similar caution also applies to calls for “smart accountability,” “smart teacher evaluation,” or “smart” anything else. Attaching an adjective doesn’t make problems go away.

7. There are implementation challenges: This is just a way to avoid saying that the plan wasn’t as airtight as initially presented and that now we’re making stuff up as we go--and hoping it’ll work out.

6. Teacher leadership: This is one of those phrases that’s been stretched to the point that it has lost all meaning, like “collaboration” or “stakeholder buy-in.”

5. Collaboration: I couldn’t resist, just because it’s funny that everyone always thinks that it’s the answer--and that no one apparently ever thought to try it before. Otherwise, just once, I’d hear someone say, “Yeah, we’re already collaborating as best we can.”

4. We need the right policies for this to work: I suppose this can be a useful reminder, especially when people are otherwise prone to fight hard for the wrong policies.

3. Innovation: As best I can tell, “innovation” is whatever you’re not doing at the moment, whatever got profiled recently in Education Week, or anything that involves an iPad.

2. Eliminating achievement gaps: It’d be clarifying to say instead that the goal is for “low-income English language learners to achieve at rates indistinguishable from affluent English speakers.” Then we could discuss more frankly whether failing to eliminate gaps necessarily reflects a failure by schools and educators.

1. Best practices: As opposed to, you know, those advocating “worst practices.” What are best practices, you might ask? Well, when you look at a school, system, state, or nation that’s producing good test scores, “best practices” are whichever things they’re doing that you happen to like.

There are plenty more where these came from. I’d be interested in hearing thoughts as to which ones readers find most egregious.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.