If hearing the phrase “with fidelity” makes you cringe and want to hide under your desk, then you aren’t alone. According to a nationally representative survey of teachers, principals, and district leaders, fidelity is among educators’ 10 least favorite education-related buzzwords.
Now, we know we’re not the first to round up the most hated education buzzwords and jargon, but this time we’re bringing some, ahem, “rigor” (another unpopular buzzword) to the process.
The EdWeek Research Center polled educators from across the country. Instead of being given a list of predetermined words to rank, teachers, principals, and district leaders were asked to share their least favorite education-related buzzwords in an open-ended question. From there, the EdWeek Research Center gleaned more than 200 unique buzzwords and ranked them by how many educators mentioned each word or concept in their answer.
Educators did not hold back.
“Education is always making up terms for things that have long-standing terms from other fields,” said one survey respondent.
“Every damn acronym the powers that be throw at us in an effort to mask old stuff born anew,” said another.
“Buzzwords insult everyone’s intelligence,” said a third respondent.
Taken together, these buzzwords provide a snapshot of the major themes in American education in 2023. Social-emotional learning, for example, ranks fairly high among educators’ least favorite buzzwords, while critical race theory—the term that has animated many a political campaign and tense board meeting in the last few years—barely made the top 20.
So, without further ado, we present the EdWeek Research Center’s findings here in the definitive list of the top 10 education buzzwords of 2023 that educators are sick of hearing.
This buzzword doesn’t need an introduction—or description. And while, yes, the COVID-19 pandemic reordered American schooling, the effects of which are still being felt today, educators are ready to move on from any buzzword with “COVID” in it.
Woke—a term often used to connote being aware of societal issues like racial justice—has been around awhile. Recently it’s taken on a pejorative bent when used by conservative politicians (Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for instance) describing, or decrying, what they see as progressive liberal curricula, such as teaching about racism in schools.
Fidelity in this context is how closely a curriculum or program is followed or implemented in accordance with how it was designed. Sometimes called the “F” word of education jargon, fidelity is often used with the words “implemented with” and described as the secret sauce for successfully implementing basically everything. Teachers, in particular, bristle at the phrase when they don’t agree with a program’s teaching methods, or they see it as unrealistic in scope and timing.
This term came into vogue in the 2000s, as annual test-score data from the No Child Left Behind Act flooded classrooms and launched a new era of measurement and score-parsing. That has only grown: We are in the era of big data, thanks also in large part to the rising use of technology in classrooms, and it is driving the bus from everything from instruction to decisionmaking.
An oldie but a goodie! There has been a lot of ink spilled over the years debating the pros and cons of standardized testing and its impact on schools—particularly the “high stakes” variety used for accountability purposes. Whether it’s the parent opt-out movement of 2015 or the more recent effort by some states to reimagine once-a-year standardized tests, the topic is a mainstay in education discourse.
Differentiated instruction is “the process of identifying students’ individual learning strengths, needs, and interests and adapting lessons to match them,” per this Education Week primer on the topic. It sounds nice in theory, but some educators see it differently.
Said one survey respondent: “Just admit that you expect us to be [special education], [gifted and talented] and “regular” teachers all at the same time!”
Equity pops up in just about every educational issue and debate, from school funding to whether history curricula represent the experiences and viewpoints of all Americans. No survey respondent elaborated on why equity was their least favorite buzzword, but we can make a good guess: People have really different ideas about what an equitable school system looks like, and what levers to pull to get there.
Here’s what one commentator on LinkedIn said when Education Week’s social media team put this question to teachers last year:
“Equity. It sounds good, but I don’t think people are committed to really making it happen.”
Another pandemic-era word to enter the K-12 education nomenclature. Many students fell behind academic benchmarks during the pandemic and have struggled to catch up, an issue that’s often referred to as learning loss.
That term fell out of favor pretty quickly among some educators who said it was too deficit-focused and doesn’t acknowledge other skills students may have gained during the pandemic, such as resilience and flexibility. Still others want to be forward-looking, not overly focused on a very unique and finite time in the past.
There’s been intense interest in the past couple of years in social-emotional learning, both as a means to help support students—especially when it comes to students’ behavioral challenges and their overall mental well-being. But the term has been increasingly politicized, as conservatives argue that SEL is an attempt to promote liberal values in schools.
Between those two points of view, SEL has been coming up a lot lately, which is probably driving some teachers’ attitudes of fatigue towards the term. Not to mention, some of the core tenets of it have been deployed in schools in previous eras under other names: “character education,” anyone?
Said one commentator on LinkedIn: “SEL— we’ve been doing it before it was a thing.”
“SEL? I don’t have a problem with it, but it bothers me when other people roll their eyes when they hear it,” said a respondent in the EdWeek Reasearch Center survey.
According to our survey, rigor is educators’ least favorite buzzword of 2023 and one that’s been a part of the education lexicon for a long time now. But with the high expectations and challenging schoolwork that make up the concept of rigor, the word has been thrown around a lot lately with the push to catch students up academically after the pandemic. Teachers weighed in on Facebook about why they don’t like the term “rigor":
“I liked the word until it became overused and repurposed to create vague, unnecessary pressure on teachers,” one said.
Said another: “The idea that we should be moving kids toward higher-order thinking—and resisting the all-too common ‘soft racism of low expectations’—was initially exciting to me. Why does every good idea wind up being used as a dull cudgel against teachers?”
As a bonus, here are the following 10 least favorite buzzwords:
12. PLC (professional learning community)
13. Restorative/Restorative justice
15. Growth mindset
18. Critical race theory
And to the four educators who listed “unprecedented” as their least favorite education buzzword: your word didn’t make it into the top 20, but we just want to say that we hear you.