September 19, 1999 - Education Jargon

INTRO: Some American teachers are appalled by language they're hearing in school. But as our Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble report, the offending words are not coming from students.

MUSIC: "Teacher's Pet"/Doris Day

AA: Today we're going to talk about a teacher's pet peeve.

Education is like any other profession: it has its own jargon that people outside the field may not understand. Yet some teachers think administrators and educational policymakers could use a lesson in speaking more clearly.

RS: Patrick Welsh is one of those teachers. He has taught English for more than thirty years at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington. He says education officials, under pressure to improve schools, keep giving new names to what he contends are old practices.

AA: For instance, right now Pat Welsh and his colleagues are being trained in a program called S-B-E. That stands for Standards Based Education.


"We've been told that this is a new paradigm, that this is something that Plato and Aristotle did not think of. When Einstein was teaching at Princeton, he didn't know about this either. What it is, is this silly thing where you have to find out what is essential for the students to know and to do, and then you're supposed to design the whole curriculum around these state standards which are defining what is essential for kids to know and to do."

AA: "Why do you call it silly?"

WELSH: "Because for years teachers have been saying to themselves, either consciously or unconsciously, `I want my students to know this.' Then one way or another they teach (it) either through direct teaching, or they have students sit around in groups. The new jargon for that is `cooperative learning.'"

RS: And how are teachers supposed to measure how much their students have learned? Pat Welsh says teachers are being told to use what are now called "performance indicators."


"They used to call them tests. I mean, normal people call them tests. But the school system is calling them `performance indicators' and I still don't know what that means. But now we're supposed to translate performance indicators into `benchmarks.'"

AA: "Benchmark" refers to a level of achievement.

RS: Pat Welsh says a lot of educational jargon arrives with newly hired top administrators wanting to make their own mark. He says things were different back when he was a student in Catholic parochial schools.

TAPE: CUT 3 - WELSH (:33)

"You know the nuns that I had in the 1950s, they never had an education course in their lives, they never used the jargon. Their thing was, `You're going to learn it or else!' But the politics today demands that superintendents come in with a new little bag of tricks and new jargon to get people to believe that they have `the' answer, that they have the silver bullet. They don't want to come in and say, `We're going to do what we always did but we're going to try to do it better.'"

AA: According to Pat Welsh, most teachers avoid using jargon in their classrooms. But it's a real problem, he says, when parents can't understand the technical terms often used in reporting the results of state or locally mandated exams.

RS: Here he speaks as a parent as well as a teacher.


"I have a fairly decent education, (yet) I could barely read the reports that would come either from the state or from our own central office, how to interpret the test data."

RS: Pat Welsh, speaking to us from the English Department at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia.

AA: If you'd like to speak to us, write us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20547 USA or send e- mail to

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "School Day"/Chuck Berry