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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 01/12/2011

The big 5: A teacher's translation guide for policymakers

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Roxanna Elden, the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. She teaches high-school English in Miami and is a National Board Certified Teacher. This first appeared on Rick Hess’s blog, Straight Up, on the Education Week website.


By Roxanna Elden
It often seems that edu-decision makers and teachers have trouble communicating. Maybe it’s because sometimes we really do speak different languages. At the very least, there are a few phrases in the policymaker-reformer-researcher dialect whose meanings change when filtered through everyday teaching reality. Those hoping for educator buy-in on the next big idea should first consult the translation guide below, which explains some catchphrases and buzzwords that set off warning bells for teachers.

"Failure is not an option"
Actually, failure IS an option. Ironically enough, it tends to be an especially popular option at schools with giant "Failure is not an option!" posters in front of the main office.

Research-based
Teachers are all for research. In fact, our jobs include an ongoing struggle to get students to do more (and plagiarize less) research.

Outside the classroom, however, "research based" roughly translates to, "You aren’t allowed to point out obvious flaws with this new mandate."

For example, teachers are inundated with research-based instructions about how to group students for learning and what activities address different learning styles. Students, unfortunately, have not read this research. When faced with a choice of assessments, they tend toward the "I want to do the easiest project" learning style. Similarly, when offered the chance to choose their own learning partners, they often group themselves homogeneously by loudness, or heterogeneously by such factors as "desire to copy work from one another." Teachers must account for these tendencies before we can use peer-reviewed studies to our students’ advantage.

Rigor
If you sit through one of the new district-mandated trainings on the importance of rigor--and I don’t recommend it--you may notice that the concept would be better described as "not sucking at teaching." Most teachers are on board with this. In fact, some of us have been complaining for years that pressure to replace real teaching with drill-and-kill test prep gets in the way of rigorous instruction.

Imagine our excitement when rigor is introduced as a brand-spankin’ new idea in professional development sessions with names like, "Unlock the Sunshine! Shedding Light on the Opportunities Created by State Assessment 2.0." Usually, these sessions use PowerPoint presentations to explain rigor as something like "teaching interesting things and expecting students to know stuff." In this context, telling teachers that rigor is important suggests we’ve spent most of the year training our students to make different colored Play-Doh balls. Good thing we had this presentation.

Status Quo
This phrase is generally used when accusing someone of defending it, and those are fighting words. ("Boo status quo! Hooray (your reform idea here)!") Meanwhile, the number one piece of inherited wisdom in teaching is the need to be consistent. Imagine, then, the chaos that erupts when class rosters are shuffled three weeks before test day or rival gangs are squeezed into the same high school cafeteria while a school is closed for restructuring. Even potentially positive changes, such as the introduction of a new reading program, have an adjustment period in which the school spends extra money, and teachers spend extra time (and sometimes money) to make the program work as advertised. Most teachers are open to growth and change, but we have also experienced changes so poorly planned, last minute, and disruptive that the status quo doesn’t seem like such a bad alternative.

Paradigm Shift
This term originally referred to discoveries so mind-boggling that they threw science’s fundamental beliefs into sharp new perspective. Here are some moments in history that might be appropriately described as paradigm shifts:

• "Lo and behold, Copernicus, you might just be right about the whole ’Earth orbiting the sun’ thing. Sorry I called you a heretic. No hard, feelings, right?"

• "So, diseases are caused by tiny organisms we can’t even see and that can be killed by antibiotics? Then what am I doing with these leeches on my skin?"• "You win, Columbus, we didn’t fall off the edge of the Earth after all."

Now, the term paradigm shift is used to suggest the groundbreaking importance of statements such as this:

• "As you can see, we’ve rephrased box number sixteen of this evaluation rubric to include the phrases rigor and research-based. Plus, we added a graphic of a smiling apple waving a flag that says, ’The status quo has got to go! Failure is not an option!’"

As a result, the term "paradigm shift" has undergone a shift of its own. It has become a code word in any presentation that means, "You can stop listening now."

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 12, 2011; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Roxanna Elden, Teachers  | Tags:  edu-speak, education buzzwords, education policy, educational rigor, failure is not an option, paradigm shift, research-based methods, rick hess, roxanna elden, teachers  
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Next: Are more high-stakes tests inevitable? A teacher says 'no'

Comments

...the term "paradigm shift" has undergone a shift of its own. It has become a code word in any presentation that means, "You can stop listening now."

YES!

And might I add a few others:

"Get out of your comfort zone".
"Data Driven".
"Standards Based"

And my favorite, "Think outside of the box".

To me when someone says this it really means that thinking outside of the box is OK as long as your thinking remains inside the comfort zone of the administration's box.

Posted by: MisterRog | January 12, 2011 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Also, I think many policymakers rely on this website to help them "communicate" with teachers:

http://www.sciencegeek.net/lingo.html

Posted by: MisterRog | January 12, 2011 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Easily the best column on education anyone at the Post (or any other paper) has written in the aftermath of the reform movement.

Best line:
"Most teachers are open to growth and change, but we have also experienced changes so poorly planned, last minute, and disruptive that the status quo doesn’t seem like such a bad alternative."

2nd best line:
Now, the term paradigm shift is used to suggest the groundbreaking importance of statements such as this:

• "As you can see, we’ve rephrased box number sixteen of this evaluation rubric to include the phrases rigor and research-based. Plus, we added a graphic of a smiling apple waving a flag that says, ’The status quo has got to go! Failure is not an option!’"

Unfortunately, the writer is a teacher, and is given no credit for being someone 'in the know'.

Posted by: peonteacher | January 12, 2011 1:39 PM | Report abuse

You left off accountability.

Posted by: bsallamack | January 12, 2011 4:26 PM | Report abuse

Brilliant...absolutely brilliant!

Posted by: UrbanDweller | January 12, 2011 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Nice job!

Posted by: ubblybubbly | January 12, 2011 7:00 PM | Report abuse

Here are some of my least favorite overused catch words or concepts that come from this current education climate:

1) data-driven (I am speechless as this is so absurd)
2) differentiation (funny in that everything is standardized for teachers and students)
3) race to the top (race to the top of what??? Races entail winners and loses... so who loses???)
4) accountability (favorite word for corporate sluggers bashing public school teachers)
5) "basic... proficient ... advanced" student ratings ("basic" is a euphemism for "failing" while "advanced" is perhaps proficient but sure looks good for people like Bloomberg who want to push false data on everyone to prove their methods are working)
6) balanced literacy (money maker for Lucy Caulkins and certain education publishers but sure promotes rigid methodologies that are failing title one students)
7) posting objectives in jargon format... (students will do bla bla bla in order to bla bla bla... as if teachers don't know what direction they are taking unless they write these objectives and post them on the board ... as if students won't know what they are learning or have learned without reading these rigidly formatted objectives on the board... busy work and useless paper work is part of corporate education).

These are just a few of myriad "edu-corporate" slogans teachers are force-fed in the current "edu-bureaucratic" top down system and required to regurgitate to their student fledglings.

Posted by: teachermd | January 12, 2011 8:50 PM | Report abuse

I was excited to read this post based on its title, but it doesn't move us forward in terms of bridging the gap between teachers and policy makes. Obviously, it wasn't intended to do that, but I was hopeful that someone on either side was willing to wave the white flag and try to find some common ground.

I'm a teacher and while I agree with some of the things written, I'm more interested in finding that common ground to move forward in solving the problem. This kind of discourse is great for venting frustration but takes us away from the goal of improving the system, which actually ISN'T working. Well, at least not from the standpoint of the widening education gap or improving the performance of low-income students (I have only taught at Title I schools, so I've seen these failures first hand, unfortunately).

Sad to see this author is more interested in keeping those walls up between teachers and reformers - we all have the same goal! Better schools! Lets stop being so polarizing so we can solve something here.

Posted by: acasey3 | January 12, 2011 9:22 PM | Report abuse

One: There really is something to the idea that sharing our triumphs and heartaches with others helps keep us sane. This made me literally (and yes, I do know the meaning of the word) laugh out loud. Thank you!

Two: For the love of all that is good and right with the world, please tell me acasey3 was trying to be satirical.

Posted by: Coachmere | January 13, 2011 12:00 AM | Report abuse

I create a bingo type gameboard called "BS BINGO" on which I print 24 buzzwords. I hand them out before faculty meetings or superintendent speeches. The idea is to cross off the buzzwords as you hear them. If you get five in a row (horizontally, vertically or diagonally) you can stand up and yell "Bulls**t!" if you want. You and those who have commented have mentioned some of my favorites. Humor is what keeps us sane. Those who "get" this are the ones who last beyond the first five years before fleeing the profession.

And you're right. Failure has to be an option or success is meaningless.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | January 13, 2011 11:28 AM | Report abuse

To acasey:

Thanks for reminding me: I'm adding "moving forward" and "common ground" to my BS Bingo Board.

The fallacy in your logic is that the motivation of reformers is the good of our students. It simply isn't. The reformers are interested in making a profit from public education and creating a two tierd system in which the wealthy are subsidized to send their children to private schools while the riff raff get shunted off to under-resourced, inferior public schools so they can learn just enough to be useful for the wealthy to exploit to make more money on their backs. In other words, there can be no common ground with these "reformers."

Posted by: buckbuck11 | January 13, 2011 11:35 AM | Report abuse

"I'm more interested in finding that common ground to move forward in solving the problem"

When you are dealing with Bill Gates' agenda, there is no middle ground. Gates plays only to win, there is there is no other option for him.

Posted by: educationlover54 | January 13, 2011 6:07 PM | Report abuse

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