Just say no to the term ‘education reform’

Years ago, editors and reporters at a mid-sized Indiana newspaper sat around a conference table and talked about what to do about two words that had entered the political lexicon: pro-life and pro-choice.

We decided not to use them, except in direct quotes or if they were part of the names of organizations. Instead we would refer to “abortion opponents” and “supporters of abortion rights,” or something like that – an approach that now aligns with Associated Press style used by most newspapers.

Our rationale was straightforward. Both pro-life and pro-choice were simplistic, inaccurate and designed to demonize the opposition. People who opposed abortion didn’t have a monopoly on supporting “life,” whatever that meant. And people who opposed abortion did so because they believed it ended a life that was precious to God, not because they opposed anyone’s “right to choose.”

Both terms were, at best, misleading. Politicians can mislead. Advocates can mislead. Journalists should just tell the truth.

The issue comes to mind with the current use of the word reform for a menu of approaches to education policy – typically including giving parents more choices through charter schools and/or vouchers; using student test results to evaluate teachers and make decisions about compensating, promoting and firing them; and limiting the power of teachers’ unions and the authority of elected school boards.

The problem is that reform isn’t a neutral word. It doesn’t just mean change; it means change for the better. According to Merriam-Webster, it can mean “a) to put or change into an improved form or condition; b) to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses.”

So people who oppose, or are skeptical of, the policies characterized as education reform are by implication the champions of faults and abuses. Or they are “defenders of the (abusive) status quote.” Even if, for example, they rage against the educational status quo, with its segregated schools, savage inequalities and inattention to poverty. Or if they desperately want schools to “change into an improved form” but fear that relying on charters, vouchers and merit pay is taking us in the wrong direction.

Like pro-life and pro-choice, suggesting that one set of proposals counts as reform is misleading at best. And education journalists shouldn’t be a party to it.

The problem is, what’s the alternative? People who deal with complex policy questions need simple, widely understood terms to describe what they’re writing about. If not reform, then what?

You can put quote marks around it: “reform.” You can use qualifiers like so-called reform. But those approaches hint at their own judgment, i.e.: that supporters claim this policy idea is reform but you and I know it’s not.

Some critics use the term corporate reform, which is arguably a solution as bad as the problem. Do corporations support charter schools, vouchers and teacher merit pay and oppose unions? Some do, some don’t. Are the policies motivated by the desire of corporations to make money from public education? No doubt some charter-school operators and test-sellers are conflating policy and profits. But other supporters just think the policies will work.

Corporate reform is just code for “I don’t know what to call it, but I don’t like it.”

Occasionally, policy wonks and education insiders poke fun at the language question, as in the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation mock competition that judged Indiana to be the reformiest state in the nation. But most people who care about schools aren’t insiders – they won’t even hear the joke, let alone get the irony.

Unfortunately, the question of how to refer to complex and overlapping views about education policy isn’t as simple as the either-or debate over abortion. I’m not optimistic that someone will soon come up with a simple and useful alternative to referring to supporters and opponents of education reform.

But until someone does, it would be nice if people who write about education would mentally red-flag reform any time they write it. Is the word necessary? Does it add anything to a reader’s understanding of the story? Is there an alternative, maybe a six-word phrase that serves the same purpose but without the bias?

If we’re going to have honest debates about education policy, we ought to start with honest language. Words have power. And journalists should use them to tell the truth.

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5 thoughts on “Just say no to the term ‘education reform’

  1. Thoughtful, Steve. Though through usage perhaps “reform” means “improvement” it’s always been closer to “remold”–what is reformed takes on the shape of the reformer in the way we might “remold” a clay form. This is neither good nor bad necessarily–it is rather singularly and intentionally WILLFUL change to suit the “changer.”

    I think you miss the mark with “corporate” reform as it may indeed be the closest to the truth in this way: it’s not whether the entities that are corporations support any of the various aspects of “free market education” (perhaps that’s a truth-term?), it’s rather that the reforms are useful to a corporate paradigm of personnel management.

    We have systems of education that are, primarily, already corporate in their hierarchy: Super as CEO and Boards as, well, boards, but only usually rubber-stamping the “vision” of the Super. The real difference is in personnel management: hiring and firing “at will.”

    Reducing labor costs and reducing the human responsibility to the work relationship (loyalty and duty) of the corporation is the primary issue (like long term health benefits and pension funds).

    The children, as you are aware, and even the ostensible reason of creating a “new and improved” learning environment, are not the true focus.

    This is just a run of the mill labor battle in a capitalist society.

    It is interesting on an ideological level too, though. In the society that equates freedom with two things, mobility and money-making, the public education system is a “socialist” institution devoted to neither of those things. One can argue that this socialism (Institutional and so still hierarchical) is the “ground” of those “opportunities”–equality of education experience is supposed to create a normalized start for folks who exercise their freedom by the “open” market of employment.

    This is a yoke of course that makes you barely enough money to subsist (that’s the idea of course); but one that can be easily removed by employers so that you may be “free” to look for another job–and perhaps “freely” relocate your family.

    Ah words, ah humanity.

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