The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Wide-Eyed in Jargon Land

on October 2, 2015

Here’s a little humor–or, perhaps, truth–that will have to last you readers through the weekend.   Tomorrow I’ll be spending almost all day at the Oregon Council of Teachers of English annual conference, and on Sunday I’ll probably be too worn out to write.  My only hope is that I find a news article about Arne Duncan’s retirement that  is truthful about his incompetence.  If I do, I will re-post it here on Sunday.

Way back when I was a college student, one of my professors warned the class to avoid using jargon in our papers. By jargon he meant big words of indeterminate meaning. Ever since then I’ve tried to follow his advice in my own writing and to be aware of jargon in the writing of others. But I’ve also come to recognize that there are different kinds of jargon and at least one of them is justifiable. That jargon is a “shorthand” used in the technical literature of specialized fields to refer to complicated entities or processes that readers are already familiar with. By using jargon the writers avoid giving long and unnecessary explanations.

But what about other kinds of jargon? Well, some kinds may not carry much meaning, but they do serve the writers’ purposes. Take, for instance, the stock phrases used in formal or ritualistic communications, such as letters of application or notes of condolence. “Yours truly,” and “May you be comforted” don’t really say anything, but they do convey the message that the writer knows the rules and cares enough to write.

And, of course the whole field of advertising is riddled with jargon intended to impress people about the superiority of various products, while not promising anything so specific that it could trigger a lawsuit. We constantly hear or read such words as, “amazing,” “easy to use,” and “ long-lasting.” This jargon often ensnares the gullible among us and even, sometimes, experienced consumers like me.

In addition, there is the jargon used in discussing politics and public issues. That kind of jargon is not meaningless; it deliberately implies one thing while referring to something very different. In the up-coming presidential race, for example, we may hear one candidate call himself a “job creator” because he headed a business for several years.  But, in fact his business closed some American companies and sent jobs overseas.  From the other side we hear that a candidate wants tax cuts for the “middle class,” but what that term really means is people earning less than $1,000,000 a year, including the working poor. The candidate uses it to appeal to all those people who want to believe they are part of that noble and hard-working layer of society.

Apart from politics, the most contentious public issue today is education. It is a polarized field, where all kinds of governmental bodies, organizations, think tanks, and citizen groups hold strong views about how schools should change or be managed. At the same time, most ordinary people have little knowledge about the realities of education, basing their opinions on personal experience, their worldviews, and what their leaders tell them. Thus, the flow of jargon is plentiful and forceful, seeking to turn the tide of public opinion in one direction or the other.

As a career-long educator I can’t keep away from reading and listening to the various arguments about education and noticing the jargon.   When I find some bit that seems especially misleading, I want to point it out to others and explain what it really means. But there is a problem here: I am a partisan, on the side of public schools,  teachers, kids, and progressive education. Although I know that they all have flaws, I still believe they are better intentioned and more often right than the groups that oppose them. So, perhaps it is not surprising that I find very little jargon in their arguments. That means that almost all the examples of misleading jargon I can point to come from the other side. Nevertheless, I will take the leap into “Jargonland” below and hope that readers will see merit in my choices and truth in my definitions.

School Reform Plans: Untested notions for improving public education, many of which have been tried before with negligible results.

School Reformers: People with impressive titles who have had little or no practical experience in schools.

Rigorous: Difficult, boring, and probably inappropriate for the students’ grade level

Research-based program: A commercial product that bears some resemblance to an educational practice found effective by researchers; in some cases by only one researcher who may also be the author or publisher of the program

Whole child education: Let the kids have music, art, and recess regularly and be allowed to talk and move around in the classroom once in a while.

Student achievement: Test scores only; may have nothing to do with real learning

Team of experts: Group of college professors, think tank members, and/or private sector consultants who have never taught children or spent time observing in classrooms; no practicing teachers are included.

Failing school: School where one or more student sub-groups didn’t make AYP on standardized tests, for which the principal and teachers are to be blamed.

Charter Schools: Semi-private schools supported by public funds and chosen by parents who think they are more elegant and exclusive than public schools. They also make their operators rich.

No Excuses Schools: Places where teachers and students do what they’re told or get kicked out.

Merit Pay: Extra money given to teachers for raising test scores. No better teaching required.

Carrots and Sticks: Rewards and punishments—mostly punishments–intended to motivate schools to produce higher student test scores.

Accountability: A government invented system that asks a great deal from public schools and gives little in return. It does not apply to charter schools.

Data: Plentiful numbers that give very little useful information to schools, teachers, or parents.

NCLB waivers: The DOE gives a state relief from the unreasonable requirements of NCLB in return for a promise to meet its own impossible goals.

I could go on pointing out more examples of misleading jargon in education, but I think there are enough here to reinforce the idea of “Reader Beware!” I also suspect I’ve supplied enough fodder for readers who agree with me to present new examples and those who disagree to tell me why I’m wrong.

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