School politics and the English language

Language matters when we write about education. If we want to have honest conversations about the topic, we should use honest words and phrases.

As George Orwell wrote in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” it’s obvious that lazy thinking can corrupt language, but “language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”

Here are a few that, in Orwell’s words, should be sent to the dustbin where they belong.

Education reform. I wrote an entire post on this in 2012. Reform doesn’t just mean change; it means change for the better. We shouldn’t use reform to refer to a set of policies – charter schools, vouchers, test-based accountability, etc. – that haven’t been proven effective.

At-risk students. Journalists use this phrase to refer to children who are poor or who live in what are often called blighted neighborhoods. Unfortunately, some educators use it too. But what does it mean, really? At risk of what? Read this powerful essay by Jason Buell and you’ll think twice before putting a label on children.

The civil rights issue of our time. This is a favorite of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and also of politicians who, believe me, would not have marched with Dr. King. As recent events in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., have made clear – and as Shree Chauhan, Audrey Watters and others have written, civil rights is the civil rights issue of our time.

Corporate reform. Supporters of public schools have adopted this term in self-defense, to suggest “education reform” (see above) really isn’t. It’s certainly true that some businesses – i.e., corporations – are big backers of school choice, etc. But some aren’t. And a lot of people and organizations that support the agenda aren’t in it for the money. They think these policies will work.

Defenders of the status quo. There may be some people who like the way things used to be and don’t want education to change. But most supporters of public schools want them to get better. They just don’t think charter schools, vouchers and grades for schools and teachers are the way to do it. Also, testing, choice and hard-core accountability arguably have become the status quo.

Failing schools. Now that Indiana and other states give schools letter grades, we can easily claim a school that gets an F is “failing.” But failing at what? Is the F the fault of the school? The teachers? The students? Are they failing? Are they failures? As Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz has said, schools don’t suffer when we label them – children do.

Talented teachers and school leaders. This phrase sounds innocuous enough, but often it’s code for “young,” “enthusiastic” and especially “made good grades at a selective college.” As Dana Goldstein points out the epilogue to her excellent book “The Teacher Wars,” there’s not a lot of evidence that teachers who fit that profile are more effective than teachers from less elite backgrounds.

Traditional public schools. As in public schools that aren’t charter schools. Because charter schools are public schools. At least, they are publicly funded and they are chartered by organizations chosen by government officials. But so-called traditional public schools – TPS, in policy shorthand – may be no more traditional in their approach than charter schools. They may be less so.

Zip code. Supporters of charter schools and vouchers have said this so often – that a child’s education shouldn’t depend on his or her zip code – that it has become a cliché. Orwell’s Rule No. 1 was: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” So don’t.

This list is just a start, and I hope readers will offer their own suggestions. Meanwhile, New Year’s Day is this week. Let’s all resolve to be more careful and honest in the language we use.


7 thoughts on “School politics and the English language

  1. Pingback: Beware the Language of “Reform” That Isn’t About Reform | Diane Ravitch's blog

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  3. I agree across the board. Language IS incredibly important, and can smuggle (often accidentally, often not) many hidden assumptions into a conversation. I must admit to being previously ignorant of “talented teachers and school leaders”. My suggestion for the list: Achievement. This is a term that is used constantly, though exactly what is to be achieved is rarely specified. It also seems to imply quantifiable measurement, and that means testing–not ALWAYS a bad thing, but again, who is being tested, for what purpose, by whom, with what consequence?

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