In the constantly shifting, highly verbal world of public education, parents are at a distinct disadvantage. As soon as your child enters kindergarten, you recognize that the people in the school buildings speak a different language. By your first teacher’s conference, you may recognize that they’re talking about your child, but, between the abbreviations (CAT tests) and the technical terms (“decoding skills”), you begin to doubt your ... well, your own decoding skills.
In the highly verbal world of public education, between the abbreviations (CAT tests) and the technical terms (‘decoding skills’), parents must learn to translate them into English.
For the last decade, I’ve been involved in a grassroots community group in New York state, Nyack Partners in Education, or PIE, organized as an alternative to the local PTA. We’ve raised issues the traditional parent groups have avoided— from racial inequities in the school system to questionable hiring practices to ineffective reading instruction. Over the years, we’ve learned that the only way to discuss educational issues is first to translate them out of edu-speak into English (and, in our district, Haitian, Creole, and Spanish).
What follows is a brief overview of some common edu-speak phrases: what they mean and when you’ll hear them. Universal as these may be, demographics do affect the specifics, so let me briefly say that ours is a well-funded suburban district with a diverse student population. Around 35 percent of our students are of color—African-American, Haitian-American, Hispanic, and Asian—and district parents range from multimillionaire investment bankers to single mothers in subsidized housing. But everyone has heard the following expressions:
“All children can learn.”
School board candidates, superintendents, education reformers, visiting politicians: Who doesn’t use this one? Its most common application is as a soothing verbal ointment, as in: “Our dedicated administration believes that all children can learn.” Note what it does not say—that all children may learn. That permission is considerably harder to come by, especially in a system that separates children by perceived ability, tracking them into what edu-speak sometimes calls “less advanced classes.” As a parent, when you hear “All children can learn,” you can safely assume that some children aren’t—with explanations to follow.
“Parents are welcome in the building.”
Variations on this phrase include “Parents must be involved in quality education” and “Community outreach is essential.” Building principals often use this one. On a day-to-day basis, you’ll soon learn that it really means: “Some parents are welcome in some buildings some of the time.” For example, parents are welcome in the building to Xerox worksheets for teachers. And parents are welcome in the building for the traditional cookie- bake fund-raiser. But when PIE, our Nyack group, organized 30 volunteers to read aloud to children, they were not welcome. The program was arranged with the principal and teachers through the shared-decisionmaking team. But once district employees realized this meant parents would be inside—with a chance to see how the school worked—the program was nixed. I don’t believe ours is the only district with a tendency to see parents as spies. In another case, a parent volunteered three days a week to work with 1st graders. But after half a year, someone filed a grievance with the superintendent on the grounds that this practice might potentially threaten a teaching assistant’s job. Parents are welcome in the building—but not for too long.
“We know how children learn.”
This one mostly comes from academics and education reformers. Often, it’s followed by, “as the literature shows,” or “best practices prove.” The “literature” is what’s printed in trade and academic journals; “best practices” are what that literature says are working. Almost no parents get to read this information (or could understand it if they did).
As a parent, when you hear ‘All children can learn,’ you can safely assume that some children aren't—with explanations to follow.
The implication is that teaching is neither a craft nor an art, but a science—comprehensible to experts only. Ten years ago, “we knew” that children learned to read by using whole language. Our district, for example, declared that if children were surrounded with good books and were read to regularly, they would learn to decipher. But when PIE offered a writing workshop to underachieving 8th graders, we discovered that most of these students (1) could barely read and (2) were from low-income families. Which left us wondering if whole language only worked with children from the district’s wealthier, better-educated families. Now, as the pendulum swings, “we know” that some children need the old sound-out-the-words, learn-the-rules approach. The conclusions may vary, but the meaning stays the same: “We know” and you, as a parent, don’t.
“Change comes from the top.”
This phrase is used as common currency within the school system, where blame tends to be shifted constantly upward with the dazzling speed of Jack’s beanstalk. Say you discover, as we did, that the plan for shared decisionmaking so weighted the committee toward district employees and so limited what the committee could discuss that it was, by definition, a waste of time. First, you go to the principal, who explains that he agrees with you, but that he’s just doing what the assistant superintendent told him to do. The assistant superintendent says she agrees with you and refers you to her boss, who sends you to a school board meeting. There, your elected representatives explain that they, too, agree with you, but this is how the state designed the plan. As a dutiful (if weary) parent, you write the state commissioner of education, sending a copy to the school administration. This earns you a blistering letter from the assistant superintendent: How dare you expose the district’s dirty linen? A few months later, you get a very sympathetic response from the commissioner. He agrees with you. When you call his office to ask what you should do, an assistant tells you to talk with your school board and adds, “Let’s face it, change comes from the top.” (As parents, we now translate “shared decisionmaking” as “We, the administration will make the decision and then share it with you.”)
A list of edu-speak phrases could, of course, go on a very long time. “We have to improve our communication skills” is a favorite among administrators. When it turns out there’s no publicity for a meeting on how children get into advanced classes—or when the $5,000 raise for the director of special education is passed in private—the district will say it has to improve its communications skills. A good rule of thumb for parents is to assume that when you hear this phrase, you’ve stumbled on a secret.
“The key is teacher training” means that there’s nothing anyone can do about tenure: The district is stuck with a certain amount of tired educators. Even when training is implemented, it often isn’t the “key.” For example, after a lengthy and bitter public debate about the achievement gap between white children and children of color, our district instituted anti-racism workshops. Staff members, parents, and others from the community attended, and the training was first-rate. The trouble was that there were no follow-ups on how to implement what had been learned—or even scheduled times for discussion groups. If this training was the “key,” it was never tried in the lock.
‘We know how children learn.’ The conclusions may vary, but the meaning stays the same: ‘We know’ and you, as a parent, don't.
Then there’s “individualized learning,” which means each child ought to be taught in the way he or she learns best. This is a “best practice,” but no teacher with 20 or 30 children in class can realistically implement such an approach.
“The solution to public education is simple: money.” That translates into: “Pay for small class size, and I’ll give you individualized instruction.” (Or, “We’re doing the right thing; we just need to do it more intensely.”) In our district, we spend an astonishing $14,000 per student; our teachers’ average salary is $70,000; and our middle school test scores were so low the state demanded an improvement plan.
Finally, there’s “We agree with your goals but not your methods.” PIE has heard this one a lot, especially after the district’s racial achievement gap appeared in a front-page story in The New York Times. The district responded by agreeing that all children can learn. If it had given any other impression, it had to improve its communications skills. What’s more, with enough money put into teacher training, the district could start the kind of top-down change that would provide individualized training. Which is, we know, how children learn. Oh, and the district welcomed parents to help work on this solution.
So, what was wrong with our methods? After years of frustration, we had gone public with issues about public education. We had, literally, spoken out of school—instead of sticking to the private language of edu-speak.
Daniel Wolff is a parent of two and has been involved in educational reform for more than a decade. He lives in Nyack, N.Y.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2002 edition of Education Week as Edu-Speak