February 19, 2004 | Commentary on Education
"With words, we govern men."
-- Benjamin Disraeli
A teacher's job is to educate. To enlighten. To inform. But that can't happen if students - and their parents - don't understand what the teacher is talking about.
That's the problem with "edu-speak," a form of jargon that's taking over in our nation's schools. Teachers are called educators. They give the children "assessments," not tests. And students no longer simply "read." They engage in "sustained silent reading," or "SSR."
Students in Virginia, to take but one example, need 22 "standard units of learning" to graduate, along with six "verified credits." When I was in school, we called those "classes" and "state exams."
All this jargon is specifically designed to be confusing. "It reinforces the divide between schools and families," education consultant Anne Henderson told The Washington Post. "Parents are like, 'What in the world does all this mean?'"
The children are probably wondering that, too. Consider the first graders in Maryland who were recently told that a math lesson "was a good warm-up for showing our enduring understanding that a number represents a quantity." That seems to mean: "You should know that a number is an amount." Why not just say so - and in terms the first grader might possibly understand?
Of course, none of this confusion would matter if we were talking about something trivial. For example, if we want to call a garbage man a "sanitation engineer" and say he picks up "refuse" instead of trash, who cares? All that matters is that the garbage goes away.
But educating our children is possibly the most important job there is. And faddish trends such as "edu-speak" are causing us to fail at it.
A recently released international survey ranked American eighth graders 19th in math and science. We badly trailed the Asian tigers Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. And, since India and China weren't included in the survey, the reality is we're probably not even in the worldwide top 20.
The news doesn't get any better for high schoolers. "For too many graduates, the American high school diploma signifies only a broken promise," according to the American Diploma Project, a partnership of Achieve, The Education Trust and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. "Employers and postsecondary institutions know that it often serves as little more than a certificate of attendance."
That's unacceptable. All high-school grads should be able to write and speak clearly. Every one of them should be able to solve advanced math and science problems.
And it's achievable. But it won't happen unless teachers focus on instructing students, instead of confusing them. They'll also need to involve parents in their child's education, rather than alienate them with incomprehensible jargon. They need to really teach if we're going to improve our education system.
But instead of learning how to manage a classroom and educate our children, as The Washington Post reported recently, our teachers are learning to "vertically articulate," "differentiate instruction," and "give authentic, outcome-based assessments." Whatever all that means. This has combined to make today's educational system a race to the bottom.
As a nation, we spend about $454 billion on K-12 education - an average of $9,458 per student. That's a lot of money.
If we expect to see a return on that investment, all of us - parents, teachers, students - have to be able to understand what instructors are saying, and what they're teaching.
It's time to shelve the "edu-speak." As Disraeli said, we use words to govern. We can't afford to make it all but impossible to understand what those words mean.