A Non-Educators Guide to EduBabble

I live in New Hampshire.  As anyone who lives (or has lived) in the Granite State can tell you, we have five seasons- summer, mud, winter, leaf peeping and primary. Really, though, the political season never really ends up here.  
I’m also an educator and, as any educator can tell you, we throw a lot of words around in education.  Besides the words actually useful in instruction (like “take out your number 2 pencils” and “keep your eyes on your own paper” and “you threw up where?!”), we use a lot of words to talk about the art and science that is Instruction. We have even more words for its cousins Assessment, Curriculum, Philosophy and, lately, its step-sister Reform.  A lot of the folks who use these words aren’t actually educators.  
ImageOver the last few months, I’ve listened to a lot of rhetoric from the never-ending stream of political hopefuls who have just disappeared like some kind of navy-coat -and-red-tie Brigadoon.  Now that they’re (finally) gone, I’d like to take a moment to clarify a few terms because, to paraphrase the great Inigo Montoya: “They keep using those words. I do not think they mean what they think they mean.”

Assessment: Let’s be clear here: assessment has become a word with a whole mess of meanings, for better and for worse.  We talk about is a way to improve teaching, as a tool for making kids successful, and as a hammer with which to pummel recalcitrant schools into shaping up.  Here’s the thing, though- assessment is different from evaluation. The former is about gathering information, the later about judging what you’ve discovered.  From the Latin assidere, (‘cause who doesn’t love a good etymology lesson?), meaning “to sit beside,” the word is actually more closely connected with knowing a student well because one actually, well, sits beside him.

Progressive:  Way back in the day, John Dewey came up with this crazy idea that learning was done by the learner and that the best way to teach something was to have the student do it- either through experience (or its neighbor experimentation) and reflection.  The term is not a catch all for any thing one hopes to use as a path to progress.  You can’t just through out a new idea and call it “Progressive” just because it’s a new idea.  It’s not progressive unless it’s something Dewey, way back in the 19th century, would have agreed with. (Ironically, much of what we call Next Generation or 21st Century is actually progressive.  I suppose 19th Century Learning doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?)

Reform: Falling back on my Merriam-Webster for this one. To reform is, simply to put or change into an improved form or condition, to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses, to put an end to (an evil) by enforcing or introducing a better method or course of action.  To actually reform something, you have to make it better.  To reform something as big as education (a giant undertaking to be certain), you have to “remove…abuses.”  Read that again. If we sub-define “abuses” to include things that either push kids out of school, keep teachers from teaching or kids from learning….well, I guess you can see where I’m going here.  

Data:  Data is information.  Period.  Data is not the same as test scores.  Test scores are one possible type of data, but they are not the only type of data.  Data can also include observations made by teachers and parents. The plural of anecdote is not data. Those three stories you read on the internet about this initiative or that program being wildly successful in improving student learning?  Those aren’t data. Those are stories.  Don’t make policy based upon them.  

Poverty: Poverty is a condition in which people (many of them children) don’t have enough money to provide for basic needs like food, housing, healthcare and clothing.  Poverty is not a ponzi scheme by which children are trying to steal from you or your constituents.  It is not an excuse created by misanthropic teachers hoping to get away with lower test scores.  Poverty, hunger, illness- these are the reasons kids don’t learn.  Fix them and you may find you don’t have the education crisis to deal with anymore.  

Students:  This one is tricky.  There are roughly 55.5 million students k-12 in the US as of this writing.  They are not one entity.  They are not heterogeneous.  They are a diverse group.  Do not assume to know them all just because you know a handful from your own neighborhood or, more likely, because you used to be one.  

Student Success: See the definition right above this one?  “Students?” There are as many definitions of student success as there are students. Anyone who claims that a single program, initiative or system will work for all of them is either a narcissist, crazy or both.  Don’t make policy based upon their guarantees.

Teacher:  These are the people who work with students.  There are really good ones and really great ones and yes, some bad ones.  The truly bad ones are rare, but bad systems can create them.  This word is not synonymous with lazy, disingenuous, malicious or cheater.

Technology:  Technology is not just the computer on your desk.  In schools, technology is both a marvel and a headache.  The, smart boards, iPads, Instant Response Systems, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, PowerPoint…they all have a place in schools.  They are not, however, going to replace schools.  Or teachers.  Don’t cut positions and replace them with adaptive apps and a new computer cart. They are tools for a job.  They are not the only tools for the jobs that teachers do, but they can be useful tools.  Don’t assume, however, that schools have the same kind of tech support available in business.  A friend of mine recently complained that it took IT almost 2 hours to fix her printer.  In many schools, 2 years is a more appropriate expected wait time- if it gets fixed at all.  Don’t give us tech and then refuse to pay for the people to help keep them running or the training needed for us to use them.

So there you have it- an EduBabble phrase book, as it were. You’re welcome.  


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