Two very interesting writers have been discussing their nominees for the most pernicious cliches floating around in education jargon these days. I have a few suggestions of my own, but we'll save those for a minute.
Judith Shulevitz of the New Republic started it off last week with her nomination for the title: "disruptive."
In edu-speak, it doesn't mean what you think. "Disruptive" is now a good thing, as long as you're not talking about your own child's behavior in class. In this context, it means practically anything - technology, innovation, bold new strategies - that disrupt the status quo.
The 'disruptor' fad
Shulevitz traces the origin of the term to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen who first used it in 1997 to describe how start-up tech companies were able to compete against and, eventually, outmatch established powerhouses.
Since then, he has turned disruption theory into an industry - not unlike "Chicken Soup for the (fill-in-the-blank), or "The One Minute Manager" - broadening his scope by applying disruption theory to all manner of social institutions, including public education.
In education, though, he likens public schools to the stale old behemoths of industry, arguing that a democratic governing structure makes them too resistant to innovation and, therefore, in need of a shake-up from outside.
The result, Shulevitz argues, are such "innovations" as online charter schools, which have made a bundle of money for private-sector entrepreneurs, but which produce poor results.
Shulevitz's column prompted one of my favorite education bloggers, the Washington Post's Valerie Strauss, to offer up her own nomination for the most pernicious cliche: "school reform." Basically, she says, it's been around longer and has caused more harm.
"Waves of school 'reform' have brought us 'school choice' and 'the accountability movement' and 'standards-based education' and '21st century skills' and all kinds of other education buzzwords that either have no meaning or are misleading," Strauss writes.
Although "school reform" has been a ubiquitous buzzword since the release of "A Nation at Risk" in 1982, more recently it has taken on a more partisan tone, referring to a specific set of anti-public and pro-privatization measures - vouchers, charter schools and the whole gambit of school choice measures - espoused by the American Legislative Exchange Council and the group of state education officials who call themselves "Chiefs for Change."
For my money, though, there's only one real contender for title of most pernicious: "The American education system is broken."
In the halls and committee chambers of the Kansas Statehouse, this is the phrase that, despite a lack of evidence to support it, has become axiomatic in the minds of policymakers, spawning the perceived need for all the other buzzwords like "disruption" and "school reform."
While it is undeniably true that there are large pockets within the United States where schools are under-performing, it's also true that most of those pockets are in high-poverty areas, both urban and rural, where children and their families also grapple with crime, substandard housing, low property values, poor nutrition, and little access to adequate health care.
That, however, is hardly an indicator that the American education "system" - i.e., publicly-funded schools for kindergarten through high school, managed by locally-elected boards within parameters set by state and federal law - is somehow fundamentally "broken." The system can work fine, even if some of its components do not.
In fact, contrary to what is often asserted by many critics of public schools, the United States is not at or near the bottom in national rankings for reading, science or math tests. In fact, it's very near the top in some categories.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, administers two sets of international tests: the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS exam; and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS exam.
In 2011, U.S. fourth graders ranked sixth out of 48 countries in reading on the PIRLS exam. On the 2011 TIMSS test they ranked among the top 10 out of 57 countries in science; and in math they were among the top 15.
Among eighth graders, only 10 other countries had statistically higher science scores than U.S. students, and only 11 had higher math scores.
And bear in mind, the countries scoring higher than the U.S. tend to be East Asian and Scandanavian countries with smaller populations and nothing like the ethnic, language and economic diversity that American schools contend with.
Roughly six years after the law was set to expire, Congress now seems to be moving on legislation to overhaul No Child Left Behind.
NCLB was the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the basic law that provides funding for Title I, special education and a variety of other kinds of federal funding.
Passed early in the George W. Bush administration, it put in place new accountability standards that states and schools had to meet in order to qualify for federal money. The most notable, and controversial, of those was the requirement that all students be tested in reading and math.
It also required that schools make measurable progress each year in raising achievement levels and closing achievement gaps between subgroups of students, or else they would face sanctions. And it mandated that by 2014, all students had to be scoring proficient or better on those tests.
Historians will probably be arguing for decades about whether the law did more harm than good. But suffice it to say that nearly everyone — teachers, parents and students alike —has been clamoring for change since NCLB's originally expiration date in 2007.
Partisan gridlock in Washington prevented that. Finally, in 2011, President Barack Obama's administration began offering states waivers from NCLB on the condition they agree to adopt "college and career-ready" standards in reading and math, along with other kinds of reform measures that would still hold states and schools accountable for showing continued improvement.
In the past week, however, the relevant committees in the House and Senate both advanced bills to reauthorize ESEA while doing away with most of the onerous requirements of NCLB.
The Washington Post reports that the House Republican plan would shrink the federal government's role in setting K-12 education policy.
The website MinnPost says the bill from the Democratic-controlled Senate looks a lot more like Obama's waiver program.
Education Week produced a side-by-side comparison on its Politics K-12 blog that summarizes the Senate Democrats' bill, the Senate Republicans' alternative, and the House Republican plan.
The Kansas Association of School Board's Mark Tallman posted this week that the national school boards group is leaning more favorably toward the Republican plans because they would impose fewer federal requirements and give more flexibility to states.
But he says the national group still has problems with some GOP provisions, and would likely withdraw its support if Republicans add amendments offering federal funding of voucher and charter school programs.