Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Educational Unspeak

I've mentioned the notion of unspeak in several previous posts, but never really expounded on the topic. The concept is fairly simple. Often, it's referred to as framing an issue. That is, casting the language of the debate in the way that is most favorable to your side. (You can read a column by Jack Shafer on unspeak here.)

Another way to conceptualize unspeak is that it's a method for making covert arguments in addition to the overt arguments you make. The classic example here is the abortion debate where you have pro-life debating pro-choice. While the actual arguments revolve around abortion, there are also covert arguments at work. Anyone supporting abortion must not be pro-life, which makes them pro-death? Same with people who are not pro-choice. They must be in favor of total state control over every decision. Obviously, neither of these is true, but that's the beauty of unspeak. It allows implication without ever actually making the argument. The other advantage if unspeak is that it allows you to place yourself in a virtually unassailable position. Who is honestly going to argue against life? When used truly effectively (and insidiously), unspeak is a way to preclude debate before it even begins.

The world of politics is most fraught with unspeak, but education, particularly education policy has its fair share as well. What follows is a (far from complete) list of the particularly gratuitous unspeak we encounter every day as we address educational issues.

Standards. We hear about it all the time. Kids need to meet the standards. What's missed in all of this talk, though, is that standards are anything but. We don't have any system of national standards in this country so the standards for each state are different from the standards of every other state. Not to make the point too obvious here, but if it's different it's not standard. Even within states there are key concepts that are assigned to grade levels (and labeled standards), but the level of proficiency required in those concepts varies widely from year to year. We don't have a standards system for comparison between states or between years within a state. Efforts are being made in the right direction and we're certainly better in this regard than we were 25 years ago. However, focusing on standards as a monolithic concept is misleading and implies greater uniformity than actually exists.

Accountability. Who could argue against accountability? You do what you do and accept the consequences (be they positive or negative) for what you've done. It's so basic and appealing that it's hard to argue against. Of course, in the educational world, accountability is a code word for punishment for not meeting "standards" (see above). Because of the way the system is structured we don't really hold kids accountable in any meaningful sense for the learning the do or don't do over the course of the year. But again, who can argue against it? Because accountability is such a powerful concept, a host of less desireable elements (e.g. constant high stakes testing) get brought in under the same umbrella.

Dumbing down. As test scores rise, so do the chorus of naysayers who claim that the tests have been "dumbed down" in order to make the tests easier to pass. Dumbing down is indisputably a bad thing. However, it's not always clear that's what's happening. I read an article several months ago (sorry, no link) saying that in New York the fourth grade reading test used to contain passages at an eighth grade level but that the test had been "dumbed down" so that the passages were now at only a fifth grade level. Is that really a bad thing? How reasonable was it to expect fourth graders to read at an eighth grade level? The test was reasonably adjusted to provide a more accurate gauge for how kids are performing. The provoked howls of rage from the anti-dumbing crowd, but if we're serious about "standards" and then holding kids "accountable" we ought to make sure that what we're doing makes sense.

Social promotion. Assuming that the test isn't "dumbed down" and a kid doesn't meet the "standards", how do we hold them "accountable." Well, at least in New York, we hold the kid back a year (or retain them in the gentler vocabulary). This is because the Mayor and the Chancellor have ended social promotion, which sounds like some sort of Communist self-esteem booster. You're going to have a hard time finding someone who will argue for social promotion because it definitionally precludes the notion that outside of self-esteem or a child's social well-being there's any reason for a child to be promoted who doesn't meet the "standards." This of course ignores the fact that there's no demonstrated educational benefit to making a child repeat a grade. But this isn't a debate we can have because unspeak has effectively decided the issue already.

Those are four examples that immediately come to mind for me. I'll be curious to hear any additional examples of educational unspeak that you can come up with.

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