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Your guide to education in Illinois
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Eduspeak: Learning the Lingo

    "Incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession."
    -- Kingman Brewster (1919-1988), diplomat and president of Yale University

    As you dig more into understanding your child's school, you will encounter plenty of buzzwords and phrases, often with startling frequency. As with any industry, the lingo of education employs many such words that sound very appealing when you first hear them.

    Here are some other articles on the incomprehensible babble often used in the name of education:

    Terminology Every Parent Must Understand:
         Do you think it's just wonderful that your kids' school says it is "child-centered", using "developmentally appropriate" classes with "collaborative activities" and "discovery learning" with an emphasis on "critical thinking"? Do you nod your head in agreement that a "drill and kill" on "mere facts" to be "regurgitated" is a bad thing and that "less is more"?
         If so, then it's vital to your kids that you read Terminology Every Parent Must Understand. This convenient, comprehensive report will help you see through the muddled rhetoric used to justify changes at your children's school.

  • Education Buzzwords: Image and Reality by Kevin Killion. Here's a short look at education phrases that are meant to sound wonderfully appealing to parents, and what they really mean (along with links to other sections of the Illinois Loop website).

  • Translating Educational Jargon, by Phillip Paeltz, Headmaster, Governor French Academy. "Official" definitions of ed jargon, along with "translations" into English. This is for everyone who ever scratched their heads over "rubric" when "checklist" would do as well, or who wanted to see through the mysteries of what "team teaching" really implies!

  • Debunking Edubabble, a Glossary from the Organization for Quality Education. A great reference! Here are definitions and the translated explanations for dozens and dozens of the educrats' stock phrases, from "accessing skills" to "whole-language instruction."

  • Getting the B.S. in Education: A Glossary of Ed-land Euphemisms and General Nonsense: a feisty and pointed look at 16 of the education establishment's most-hallowed maxims.

  • Substance, Not Process by James O'Keeffe. "On some levels, constructivism appeals to the romantic in all of us. Why, that's just how I'd want my child to be taught! we might think. It's student-centered! It's authentic! It's developmentally appropriate! And it's so pretty! Now we begin to see why the seductive, ethereal lingo deployed by educrats continues to confound not just teachers but the American public at large. If you're not for constructivist education -- if you're an old-fashioned, teacher-centered instructivist, let's say -- you must be anti-child, and nobody wants to be associated with hatred of children, least of all teachers and parents. And that, in turn, is the reason why so many educrats can preside over asylums, rather than sane schools, and get away with it, year after year. Might it also be the reason why about half of all new teachers quit the profession within five years?"

  • Mechanisms to Advance New Understanding for Renewal in Education (MANURE) -- A veteran teacher identifies patterns of how educational fads come and go, and lists an astonishing number of edubabble favorites.

  • Flunking the Jargon Test by Edwin J. Feulner, February 21, 2004. Excerpt: "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.' ... 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?'" ... Teachers ... 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.

  • If It Quacks Like a Duck, It's Probably Baloney (April 2002) by Martin A. Kozloff, Distinguished Professor, Watson School of Education, University of North Carolina in Wilmington. Dr. Kozloff starts out with the disarmingly succinct realization that
    ... parents, consumer organizations, state legislators, serious educational researchers, and even federal agencies have tied together two simple facts:
    1. Too many students aren't learning much.
    2. This may have something to do with instruction.
    If instruction is failing, then what's taking it's place? Dr. Kozloff answers by dissecting each of some of the most endemic and worrisome buzzwords floating around the education industry, including:
    1. "Best Practices."
    2. "Developmentally appropriate practices."
    3. "It is best when the teacher is a facilitator rather than a transmitter of knowledge. It is best for students to discover and construct knowledge on their own."
    4. "Homogeneous grouping for a short time each day for certain subjects based on students' current skills is bad. It lowers self esteem and creates tracks. It is discrimination."
    5. "It is better for teachers not to correct students' errors immediately. Error correction makes students dependent on the teacher. Therefore, students should discover errors themselves and learn to correct them."
    6. "Having students frequently practice skills is not an effective way to foster mastery and self-esteem. Frequent practice inhibits creativity and is boring."
    7. "It is best for teachers to create their own curricula and lesson plans, rather than follow programs. Following programs disempowers teachers and stifles creativity."
    8. "Higher-order thinking."
    9. "Reflection."
    If you've had such notions tossed to you at school conferences, your children need you to read this article!

  • Insubstantial Pageants by Martin A. Kozloff, Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, April, 2001. This is a powerful and important article on the shallow practices that are pervasive in the education industry. Here are some excerpts regarding jargon:

         "I spent a month examining websites of several hundred schools of education selected at random from a Lycos search. The combination of this information and first-hand experience suggests that with rare exceptions impression management is one of the main activities in the sample of ed schools -- an elaborate staging of pretended scholarship, democratic values ('social justice,' 'respect for the individual'), and technical expertise ('reflective practitioners'). ...
         "Using 'rough magic,' Prospero (in Shakespeare's The Tempest), created a world for himself and his daughter, Miranda -- a world that was an illusion -- a 'baseless vision,' an 'insubstantial pageant' of 'cloud-capp'd towers,' 'gorgeous palaces,' and 'solemn temples.' The same may be said of some ed schools. The baseless vision is that they train new teachers to be technically proficient; possess both the mandate, wisdom, and moral rectitude to be 'stewards' of America's children; have the authority and wisdom to be 'change agents' promoting social justice, tolerance, and 'appreciation of diversity'; and most of all can sustain the charade indefinitely.
         "The insubstantial pageant is the annual round of symposia, forums, and conferences put on by ed schools to impress and coopt university chancellors, state legislatures, and wealthy benefactors; the steady stream of brochures advertising 'dynamic and innovative' programs; the newsletters breathlessly reporting the scholarly activities of faculty (e.g., a workshop at a local conference, supervision of three students); and artful reports and NCATE matrices providing 'evidences' and 'artifacts' of program 'products' and alignments with 'standards.'
         "The cloud-capp'd towers, gorgeous palaces, and solemn temples are ed schools themselves -- where halls and classrooms display the often-infantilization and indoctrination of ed students in the form of popsickle sticks adorned with glued mung beans (a mathematics 'manipulative') and posters describing 'literacy philosophies' and 'tenets of middle grades social studies' -- complete with spelling errors, crayon drawings, glitter, and shibboleths. 'All children have the right to read' (without one word about how to teach them to read). ...
         "The most common feature in the sample of ed school documents is 'empty (but high-sounding) words and poetic metaphors' -- to paraphrase Aristotle's description of Plato's theory of ideas. The most frequent terms are meaning (as in 'students engage in meaning-making'), construction (as in 'meaning construction' and 'construction of knowledge'), reflection (as in 'think reflectively'), empowerment, inquiry (as in 'inquiry-based learning'), relevant (as in 'relevant contexts'), developmental (as in 'developmentally appropriate practice'), conceptual framework, standards (as in 'standards-driven assessment'), diversity (as in 'appreciate diversity'), professional (as in 'professional development'), transformative (as in 'transformative experience'), authentic (as in 'authentic context'), complex, vision, inspire, ongoing (as in 'ongoing reflection'), engage (as in 'engage in reflection'), process (as in 'engage in the process of meaning making'), child centered (as in 'classrooms should be child centered'), and active learning.
         "These words are seldom defined operationally. That is, ed schools rarely say exactly what a person does when he or she reflects; or what, exactly, makes a practice developmentally appropriate. When these terms are defined, words of even less substance are used. 'When instruction is child centered, children are empowered to control their own education. They have voice.' Moreover, ed schools rarely examine either the logical adequacy or empirical validity of concepts (best practice) and propositions ('Teachers should use best practices.'). Clearly, it is impossible ever to confirm statements of what is best. ..."

    We highly recommend that you take the time to read Prof. Kozloff's full article -- it will help you to understand better how education came to its current situation, and the difficulty involved in restoring academic substance and effective teaching practices.
  • More from Dr. Kozloff: "Buzzwords, Jargon, Ideology-serving Shibboleths, and Reason-Torturing Terminology in Education" by Dr. Martin Kozloff, Distringuished Professor at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. Dr. Kozloff presents a biting yet cogent guide to the key maxims of progressive education.

  • Award-Winning Edu-Speak by Linda Schrock Taylor. Excerpt: "I will never be named, 'Teacher of the Year' ... I would be unwilling to make the kind of speeches that such a role would require. ... I neither speak, nor fully understand, the new PC education language. Normally I am very adept at communication. I understand the speech of nearly every deaf and hard of hearing person I have ever met. I study linguistics and the roots of language. I studied French for seven years in school. During my year spent with Chilean and Venezuelan friends at Manchester University, I came to understand Spanish well enough to follow conversations. I correct my son's Latin translations with rather good accuracy. But despite my frequent exposure to Edu-Speak, I never become accustomed to it."

    The author, Linda Schrock Taylor, goes on in her article to dissect a typical education mission statement, and finds that the impressive sounding verbiage boils down to fluff and nonsense.

  • Edu-Speak by Daniel Wolff, Education Week, May 1, 2002

  • Education Language: A Lesson In Confusion, National Post (Canada), September 7, 2001

  • Schools Should 'Decommit' To Gobbledygook by William L. Bainbridge, August 20, 2001

  • Education Language: A Lesson In Confusion bu Julie Smyth

  • Upon Further Reflection, a Few Random Thoughts by Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times, August 30, 2006. "As the new school year begins, let us reflect. Let us reflect on our reflections about reflecting. Let us reflect on the triumph of jargon and buzzwords in the education field. Let us reflect on how a common-sense concept gets glorified as if it were brilliant innovation."

  • When Academic Lingo Trumped Correct English by David McGrath, a writer and an instructor at College of DuPage, Chicago Tribune, November 13, 2002.

  • A California teacher reports this story: "At my last Los Angeles District teacher training class, the 'facilitator' was talking about the tests we are supposed to give at the end of a 'unit' of teaching. She was babbling on about something called an 'EOUA' (end of unit assessment!) and then said they were previously called an 'ASODA' (something something on demand assessment). When someone asked her why the names were changed and if that change meant anything, she replied, 'Oh, that was just a paradigm shift'. At that point, a fuse blew out in my brain, and I was only saved from lobotomizing myself by the snickering and unrepeatable remarks coming from the very funny man sitting next to me who has a real masters degree in English from UCLA."

  • Educational Jargon Generator:
    "This fine academic tool was designed to assist in the writing of reports, grant applications, and other documents related to public schools. I believe that it will be particularly useful for people involved in writing reports for WASC accreditation. Amaze your colleagues with finely crafted phrases of educational nonsense!"

  • Here's another Education Jargon Generator by Jerry Taylor.

  • In a nice twist, Jerry Taylor challenges us to take the Jargon Quiz. "Below are twelve (12) educational terms/approaches/trends, etc. Six of them are real and represent actual programs in use today. The other six? Well, they're just a bunch of legitimate-sounding, but very spurious 'fads' that I made up."

  • Words Have Meaning by Lynn Stuter, May 14, 2003. The author looks at buzzwords and catch phrases of modern education and concludes that what they imply bears little similarity to what parents might think they mean.

  • Jargon Becoming Prevalent in the Classroom by Linda Perlstein, Washington Post, January 18, 2004. "At many schools, 6-year-olds don't compare books anymore -- they make 'text-to-text connections.' Misbehaving students face not detention but the 'alternative instruction room,' or 'reinforcement room,' or 'reflection room.' Children who once read now practice 'SSR,' or 'sustained silent reading.' And in Maryland, high schoolers write 'extended constructed responses' -- the essay, in a simpler time. Jargon has been a mainstay of bureaucracy for centuries, satirized in the works of Jonathan Swift and George Orwell. Education is particularly fertile ground ... 'These are terms that will drive anyone to complete hysteria,' said Robert Hartwell Fiske, publisher of the Vocabulary Review and author of the forthcoming 'Dictionary of Disagreeable English.' ... Students and parents say it's hard to keep up, and outsiders say the language alienates parents, complicates learning and muddies the language. ... Robert Maeder, 17, a senior at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, finds the terms demeaning -- especially 'learning cottage,' instead of 'classroom trailer,' and 'assessment' for test. 'It's like renaming a prison 'The Happy Fun Place,'' Maeder said. 'Tests should be called tests. 'Brief constructed response' -- you just wonder why they don't say 'paragraph.' It doesn't really serve any purpose renaming them.'"

  • A "Glossary of Edubabble," (PDF) is provided in an Australia report, Why Our Schools Are Failing, published by the Menzies Research Centre in that country.

  • Words Of ... Oh, If We Only Knew by David McGrath, College of DuPage, Chicago Tribune, November 3, 2003 "As the Midwest Modern Language Association gathers at the Hilton Chicago Hotel for its annual conference Friday, I hope the members are more intent on solving the problems in their profession as teachers of language and literature than on perpetuating their image as scholars of the arcane and the irrelevant. I hope so because the writing skills of American students have been steadily eroding in the last three decades ... it may also be that the English teaching profession's passion for probing obscure topics with pretentious, often indecipherable prose may share some of the blame."

Names, Titles and Trivia


    From our extensive page on education quotations:

    "With words, we govern men."
    -- Benjamin Disraeli

    “If you redefine words, you can change laws without legislating."
    -- Konstantin Kisin

    "Incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession."
    -- Kingman Brewster (1919-1988), diplomat and president of Yale University

    "The cheaper the crook the gaudier the patter."
    -- line spoken by character Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon" by by Dashiell Hammett

    "The educationist, pen in hand, seems to exhibit by some kind of instinct an almost total insensitivity to the rhythms of the English tongue; and he can at the same time practice in one paragraph all the worst vices to be found in comtemporary writing -- a considerable achievement. His prose as well as his speech is apt to be marked by an excessive wordiness, by a genuine fondness for platitudes, by an irredeemable addiction to ugly coinages and meaningless jargon, and by a plenitude of strange constructions."
    -- James D. Koerner, "The Miseducation of American Teachers", 1963

    "Much like Newspeak in Orwell's '1984', 'Educanto' is designed not to merely express the inchoate views of an obscure priestly caste, but to make real thought impossible."
    -- Paul Greenberg, "Sad State of America's Schools"

    "Whether you live in an urban neighborhood or an affluent suburb the perception is that when parents ask tough questions, educators immediately circle the wagons, stonewall, or throw educational jargon at you."
    -- Elaine K. McEwan, former west suburban teacher, principal and assistant superintendent

    "We're not just the cookie bakers anymore ... but if you raise questions, you get analogies that are designed to make parents feel stupid."
    -- Betty Underwood, a manager for a $60 million retail firm before becoming a stay-at-home Mom in Arlington Heights (quoted in the Chicago Tribune)

    "Constructivist 'theory' is a mishmash of overlapping platitudes and absurdities -- 'empty words and poetic metaphors' (Aristotle, Metaphysics). Taken separately, constructivist 'propositions' are merely simpleminded. Taken together, they are indistinguishable from the verbal behavior of a person suffering from chronic schizophrenia."
    -- Martin A. Kozloff, Ph.D.

    Also see our full page on education quotations.

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