Tackling Edu-Speak

By Catherine Gewertz — August 27, 2013 2 min read
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If you’ve waded into the education world for even a few minutes, you have probably stumbled into a wall of words. The field is riddled with jargon, “abstractia,” and obscure vocabulary.

Ever wonder why students are referred to as “learners” and whether there is a difference between a test and an assessment? Have you seen the phrase “value added” a zillion times and you still wonder what it means? The new Glossary of Education Reform is aimed at you.

Under the auspices of the Education Writers Association and the Great Schools Partnership, a team of folks with education, communications, and journalism backgrounds got together to create this guide to the baffling and often obfuscating terminology that describes the K-12 world. Their hope is to clarify the terms that prove critical in the public debate about improving public schools.

They recognized that misunderstanding of key words and concepts fuels misunderstanding—and skewing—of important conversations about fixing education. The website is already populated with dozens of terms, but many more are still to come (though I noticed that “common standards” doesn’t seem to be one of them).

Some of their definitions will doubtless be disputed. For instance, the glossary lists interim assessment without its own meaning, referring readers instead to formative assessment, as if the two are synonymous, which is far from agreed upon in the assessment world. Formative assessment itself is poorly understood, something that was underscored for me a few years ago when I wrote a story about it, and EdWeek Web traffic for that story soared.

The glossary editors’ decision to list the definition of academic standards only under L—for “learning standards"—might complicate the efforts of parents and others who keep hearing about “standards” in their children’s schools.

The glossary has a fun list of the 50 words currently getting the most attention (proficiency-based learning tops the list, but Bloom’s Taxonomy comes in at a healthy 14. Who knew? Asynchronous learning is number 43. Do you know what that is?). And it has a substantive introduction that sets it work in the context of the intense—and at times misinformed—education reform debates around the country.

The glossary isn’t the first to take on the wonk-speak of education; Education Week put out a guide to education terminology in 2009. And in a related field, philanthropy, writer Tony Proscio tackled the world of foundation-speak in a humorous guide in 2001.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.