Education Opinion

Straight Talk

By Linda Freeman — January 01, 1997 5 min read
Jargon is mucking up our message and jeopardizing reform.

In 1994, ABC News compiled several education features that had appeared on World News Tonight With Peter Jennings into an hourlong, prime time special called Common Miracles. This special highlighted current movements in education and included interviews with some of the most significant researchers in the field. As the program was about to introduce a segment with Robert Slavin, the noted researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and expert in early-childhood education, the camera panned a small group of children working together on a project. The reporter’s voice-over said, “Remember cheating? Today it’s called cooperative learning.”

Although the reporter went on to describe the many benefits of children working in a cooperative classroom, some parents may question any activity said to have a relationship to cheating. As a result, the term “cooperative learning” may take on a connotation that denies the benefits we know the technique produces.

If we ask parents whether they want their children to learn to work in groups, more often than not they say yes. If we ask employers whether they want our schools’ graduates to have teamwork skills, they, too, say yes. But ask these same people whether they support cooperative learning in the schools, and the response may be much less supportive. Reactions to this specific strategy may be the result of the messages—often conflicting—that have surrounded cooperative learning.

The entire issue of school reform, like welfare reform and health-care reform, has become embedded in the political and public-policy rhetoric of the day. For some people, “reform” conjures up images of a progressive, forward-thinking movement that rids an issue of all the negative baggage it has accumulated. For politicians, reform is good; the need for reform is concrete proof that past administrations and officials have been less than successful. “Ending welfare as we know it” sounds both powerful and proactive. But ask parents if they favor reforming or restructuring schools, and the reaction may be much less positive. Instead of producing constructive images of improving schools, “reform” and “restructuring"—just by virtue of the words’ implication of lack of success—can create negative images.

Indeed, most parents are products of our country’s public education system, and many consider themselves competent and well-educated. What are they to think about reform efforts that appear to threaten the future of schools as they knew them? As educators, we need to recognize not only what factors have molded parents’ perceptions about education issues but also our role in creating and sustaining these perceptions. Only then can we make some thoughtful choices about how to communicate effectively with parents about educational change.

First, we need to remember the context in which parents think of education, starting with their own school experiences. Take parents’ perceptions of mathematics education, for example. Parents today have been through the New Math, have probably experienced math anxiety themselves, and undoubtedly learned in schools that stressed computation above all. Most have seen charts and graphs in newspapers and magazines showing math achievement levels of U.S. students plotted against those of foreign competitors. To some, these international comparisons prove that U.S. kids can’t do math. So their experiences and perceptions lead them to support a very traditional math program as well as conventional approaches to the entire curriculum.

Next, we must be aware of our own role in contributing to parents’ perceptions. As educators and reformers, we have often perpetuated misunderstanding through our continued use of certain words and terms. Parents should not be faulted for viewing educational jargon as subterfuge, an attempt to take a classroom innovation or strategy and slip it by them. Parents are fully capable of understanding what schools are trying to do. All of us have experience with doctors or other professionals who say, “I’d explain this, but you’d never understand.” Nothing does more to create resentment and feelings of skepticism and mistrust. Phillip Schlechty, president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Kentucky, says educators often complain that parents don’t understand the language. Our job, then, he asserts, is to make the language understandable. “Educationese” should never be a barrier that separates us from the parents of our students.

Avoiding charged words and buzzwords should in no way be seen as talking down to parents. Instead, educators should express classroom goals in ways that capitalize on parents’ experiences. Computer-software designers know that we’re all more comfortable with technology if we use it in a familiar context.

‘Educationese’ should never be a barrier that separates us from the parents of our students.

Because many of us spent years literally cutting and pasting together our term papers, word-processing programs that let us move text on the screen use the terms “cut” and “paste” in appreciation of our frame of reference.

Wouldn’t talking to parents about changes in schools be easier if we acknowledged parents’ frames of reference when we talk about things like whole language, critical thinking, outcome-based education, and cooperative learning? These words and terms may have taken on meanings and baggage that are difficult to overcome. But just because parents are put off by terminology or jargon does not necessarily mean they disagree with the goals of a particular strategy. It is important, then, that we clarify the strategy by choosing words that parents are familiar and comfortable with.

Here, in a nutshell, are several things we need to do to improve the way we communicate with parents about school reform:

  • Make sure we have a clear understanding of the reform goals ourselves. We are much less likely to become defensive if the goals we are describing are clearly defensible.
  • Articulate why the changes are necessary, describe how the new strategies will work, and address concerns parents raise. We must do so in language that is clear and free of jargon.
  • Acknowledge that parents bring their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences to any discussion about reform. We must tap those experiences to help parents understand our goals, just as we do with students.
  • Use our own interactions with other professionals as learning experiences—both good and bad. We need to pay attention to the words, tone, and body language of people in the legal, medical, financial, and other professions and gauge our own reactions to them.
  • Welcome discussion and be accessible.

We in education are certainly aware of the need to improve many aspects of the teaching and learning process. We know children learn at different rates and respond to vastly different teaching strategies. We know we can do a better job of reaching all children. We know all these things. But our best reform efforts will be unsuccessful unless we also know how to communicate in ways that enable us to sustain and expand our base of parental support.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as Straight Talk