Monday, August 19, 2013

That's that terminology I don't like

My face-to-face and phone-to-phone conversations about Achievement First tend to become a love-fest of sorts...there is so much thoughtful stuff going on in our network, plus I love our school, and there's really nowhere else I'd rather be. But there are some things about the ed reform movement at large, including AF, that I'm not a huge fan of. In particular, though I love so much of what we do, I don't always love how we talk. I'm not asking for these things to be changed, and I think I understand the rationale behind all of the terms (and will continue to use many of them when appropriate because I generally believe that alignment is a good thing.) Here is a brief list:

1. Upspeak.   This is where you end every statement with a rising tone, as if it were a question? But what's more annoying? is when it's used? at every natural pause? in a SENTence. (the last word is spoken in a definitive downward-moving tone.) I reckon this is a function of ours being a youthful movement/organization, and that this linguistic feature is merely a mirror of a general shift-at-large over the past 15-20 years. I don't have any philosophical qualms with this one, and I don't believe it belies an underlying lack of confidence (as Taylor Mali posits); I just find it annoying.

2. Scholars.   I had some professors in college who were scholars. There were Biblical scholars, scholars of medieval Spanish writing, scholars of 19th-century Brazil, world-class mathematicians (who are scholars in their own right), and Constitutional scholars. I've heard the argument before that calling ten-year-olds "scholars" belittles the term...and that may be the case, but I know that's not the spirit in which the term is used. It is used to mean "a future scholar", or "one who is studying and working hard, as scholars do." That's cool. I like reminding kids I'm working with that they are on their way to doing great things. What I don't like is the implicit statement that we're not going to treat kids like kids. Rafe Esquith likes to remind us all that kindergarteners barely know where their belly buttons are, and that treating them as if they were already in college is a bit absurd. I think about Barbara and Sebastian, ages 7 and 6, respectively, and it cracks me up to think that they are referred to as "scholars" at school. Yes, I hope they end up extremely well educated, but I'm also aware that they currently enjoy ice cream, have horrible taste in television shows ("Dog with a Blog"), and don't like wearing pants at home (but seriously, who does?) I propose that we replace the term "scholars" with "kids" and, if it helps us keep their potential in everybody's mind, focus on asking these "kids" great (dare I say rigorous?) questions that inspire them to think deeply.

2.5.   KIPPsters.   This one is just pure baggage. In 2009, when KIPP Fresno closed, we had to confront the truth that there would be no KIPP for our kids to come back to. Tying their identity, even tangentially, to a school that was about to close seemed like a bad idea; we preferred, instead, to focus on helping them develop their character regardless of their surroundings. It also reinforced the "you're better than all those other kids" narrative that goes against our overall mission of helping all kids. I'm fine with "this is a special place" and "let's work on going against the norm and becoming extraordinary"; I'm less OK with "you're better because you won the lottery and got into this school." Though I think it's obvious, my dislike of this term has nothing to do with the kids this term is used to refer to. I love the kids I've had the pleasure to teach in Fresno and in Jacksonville, and I've met a lot of amazing kids from KIPP schools across the country. I just don't love the term KIPPster.

3. Rigor (and its derivatives).   Does this mean "difficult"? "At a level that requires application or analysis, rather than simple understanding or recall"? "Scaffolded in such a way that kids can figure out the meaning on their own, but in a stepwise fashion"? When we were looking at some of our mistakes after the Year of Terrible Results (2011, in Jacksonville), we identified "rigor" as a huge gap. What we meant was that we were asking questions that were too easy and that didn't force kids to keep the concept in working memory (in order to apply the concept) long enough for it to make its way into long-term memory. I understand that "rigor", in our case, was a shortcut for this more precise but long-winded verbiage, but it means so many different things to so many different people that it now leads to more confusion than clarity. Let's either have this word mean one thing or take a break from it until we figure out how to dress it up to convey the specific meaning we're going for (e.g. "You should try increasing the Blooms-Rigor of your final question" vs. "Maybe your questions aren't difficulty-rigorous enough.")

4.   The Achievement Gap.   I'm not the first one to publicly dislike this term because it takes "white achievement" as the norm and implicitly accepts that this should be the norm by comparing other groups to white students' achievement.  I'd much prefer to talk about "educational inequity" or "gross unfairness" (which reminds me of Dr. King's quote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere", indicating that educational inequity is everybody's problem.) Look, I don't have a problem comparing our students' work to that of their wealthy, largely white counterparts, because I want our kids to do as well as possible, and this is the group that is currently doing the best. But let's just name it. We're not reinforcing a standard sense of norm by saying we're comparing our kids to normal kids out there who have regular opportunities; we're comparing our kids to the students who are performing the best. On standardized tests, in writing samples, and the like.

5. Acronyms and ultra-precise terminology for everything.   Last weeks, we sat in an otherwise very good training that took a 3-minute detour to clarify the difference between TDQs and EBQs, how each related to the PBA in its relative need for framing and context vs. contextualization. The point of the session was to learn how to ask better questions - why can't we just call this "asking better questions" and then clarify what characteristics good questions have at various points in the lesson, to achieve different purposes, etc.? I get the need to precisely define terms, but I think we may have jumped the shark here. Some of you may

6. Trite phrases.   There are a host of other words and phrases I think are comically overused, like transformational impact (particularly to describe some good-sized jump on a math test), climbing the mountain to college (which most often runs together as Clem The Man To College), and...

...write your guesses/contributions in the comments :)


  1. Not all of us can? Speak as eloquently as you? You know? SOMETIMES WE DON'T EVEN HEAR OURSELVES DOING IT. IT'S HARD TO BE A TWENTYSOMETHING.

    In other news, I agree with almost all of this, with the addition of the compliment sandwich (in most cases). Both students (and adults) need to understand that most places in the world do not sugarcoat the majority of interactions. I'm not saying that feedback should be harsh, but it should certainly be direct and not padded by artificial sweeteners to ease the pain of criticism.

  2. I similarly dislike scholars. I think kids are so much more than scholars, they are musicians, writers, creators, inventors, designers, comedians, players ...