I can’t understand my child’s teacher

At back-to-school night for her fifth-grader, Dahlia Lithwick felt like a dummy, she writes in Slate. She couldn’t understand what the teacher was saying.

The evening passed in a blur of acronyms, test names, and emendations to last year’s system. Which I also didn’t understand. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that I understood significantly less at this open house than I did at my sons’ open house during a sabbatical last year, when it took place overseas and in a foreign language.

Public education has been overwhelmed by jargon, she writes. There are more acronyms — MAP and SOL and EAPE—than words.

Even if we can all agree about the singular benefits of “project-based learning across the curriculum,” I am less than perfectly certain any of us knows what it means.

Her child’s school is now “un-levelling,” parents were told. And soon it will be “fitnessgram testing.”

I checked with friends this morning to find out if I was alone in my sense that I had fallen asleep in the late 1990s and woken to a world in which I have no idea what schools even do anymore. My friend Stephanie advised me that her back to school night involved a discussion with a teacher about “interfacing with a child’s developmental space,” as well as a reference to “scaffolding text to text connections” in Ramona the Pest. My friend Laurel was told by her child’s teachers that “the children will be required to work in groups in this class, as collaboration is a 21st-century skill.”

Lithwick plans to use an education jargon generator to prep for her first teacher conference, she writes.

I tried the jargon generator. “We will generate child-centered interfaces within the core curriculum,” it suggested. “We will expedite meaning-centered paradigms across the curricular areas.” It sounds perfectly plausible. “We will aggregate interdisciplinary enrichment through cognitive disequilibrium.” Indeed.

About Joanne


  1. Ann in L.A. says:

    I had a friend with a daughter with some speech delays; these were leading teachers to, what she felt were, the wrong conclusions about her kid. She was so fed up with the jargon the teachers threw at her–which seemed designed to keep her at a distance–that she took some ed school classes.

    That way, she would know how to answer them and know when they were spewing garbage.

  2. Wow. This was not our Back-to-School night experience at all! My kids are in the Cupertino School District in CA (this is a “good” district). My son’s 5th grade teacher had a nice packet of information for us, and she went over straightforward items like the class schedule, major projects the kids will have this year, P.E. requirements, special events, and field trips. She also included a 3-page curriculum outline that explains in clear, jargon-free English what the class will be working on this year (and in some cases how that work fits in with the new Common Core standards). For example:


    “We have a literature-driven reading program. We will be reading a variety of stories and novels. Our first book will be ‘Bridge to Terabithia,’ by Katherine Patterson. We will also read selections from our literature series, Expeditions, which is based on meeting California State Reading Standards. The students will be guided through these books focusing on comprehension and higher-order thinking skills. Projects will be done collaboratively.”

    Ok, maybe “higher-order thinking skills” is a little jargon-ish? But I can’t remember hearing or seeing a single acronym that evening, other than “PTA” and “P.E.”

    Maybe all this competent simplicity is a sign that we have a really good school?

  3. Ann in L.A. says:

    Our school loves saying things like: “formative and summative assessments,” which I figure can be translated as: “subjective and objective grading.”

    Of course there’s the old favorite: “21-Century Skills”, translation: “knowing how to Google and use PowerPoint/Prezi.”

    It took us years before they said enough for us to realize that “we educate the whole child!” meant: “we aren’t academically rigorous.”

    Then there is “we use Common-Core as a guideline”, translation: “don’t expect us to reach up to the level of the Common Core.” (this is a private school.) I don’t think they have stopped to think through the implications of that last one, which can also be translated as: “Don’t pay us! If you want your kids to at least get the Common Core, you can get that for free somewhere else!”

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Actually … Formative assessments are quizzes, small tests, or anything that let’s a teacher know, “How much are the students getting this? What do I have to take more time on or reteach or teach differently?” It may also let a student know, “How much am I getting this? What should I be studying harder or practicing more or asking the teacher for help on?” A formative assessment should not figure much in a final grade.

      A summative assessment, on the other hand, attempts to sum up what a student has learned in a particular area. A chapter test would be a summative assessment.

      I hope this makes it easier if you have a one-on-one with a teacher 🙂

  4. I didn’t realize we were all in agreement about project-based learning across the curriculum.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The failure of primary-care adults to interface successfully with the students’ education facilitation agent is a failure of the community to offer sufficient ongoing support for and awareness of the synergistic nature of successful classroom advancement. The fault-finding, rigid structure of traditional views held by most primary-care adults is unsuited to the promotion of a collaborative discourse of learning, putting unneeded social pressure and expectations shaped by patriarchal and racist hegemonies onto the students at precisely the times when they are most in need of the reaffirmation of their existing social capital. It is only by firmly grounding our curricular ventures in students’ existing practical and environmental experiences that we can validly pursue the performative goals of true education for *all* students, as set forth in the district expectations for empirically-driven assessment, or alternatively, adherence to a schema of instruction that has been demonstrated to have been successful with rhesus monkeys.

    • Wholistically. You forgot that.

      • Mere nit-picking. An awesome display of stream-of-consciousness edu-BS.

        Some real gems in there.

        “education facilitation agent”! Three words where one would do!

        “curricular ventures” suggests the sort of risk-taking that’s made entrepreneurship sexy without, of course, the taking of any risks nor the need to show results.

        Were there a bureaucratic equivalent of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest Micheal would surely win with this evacuation.

    • Bingo, Sir. We need an Education Buzzword Bingo Generator.

    • How will you address the psychocultural needs of an intentional non-learner whose cultural normative orientation is not synchronous with your language-cultural majority world view?

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        That’s a really good question, Sean. I’m glad you asked it.

        By adopting an inclusive and accepting pedagogical framework that proactively addresses behaviors and habits that were traditionally perceived as deficiencies in the context of a students’ overall performance goals, we can create reciprocal communicative pathways that allow both teachers and all students to learn from and benefit cognitively, socially, and perceptually from the asynchronicities that will inevitably be present in any instructional situation that stems organically from a pluralistic community. Thus, we can validly pursue our goals of performative goals of true education for *all* students — even the students that you have identified — using rigorous and appropriate positive pedagogical methodology, as set forth in the district expectations for empirically-driven assessment, or alternatively, adherence to a schema of instruction that has been demonstrated to have been successful with rhesus monkeys.

  6. I openly mock edu-jargon and acronyms in faculty meetings and PLCs (oops, there’s one — that’s Professional Learning Communities). When chided if I don’t know one, I respond, “I speak English, thanks.”