Several years ago, an older and wiser colleague of mine at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel gently chided me for using the phrase “inner-city” in my newspaper articles on Milwaukee’s schools. My co-worker, Jamaal Abdul-Alim, pointed out that most of the neighborhoods and sections of Milwaukee to which I ascribed that label were not part of the city’s core. If I meant low-income, predominantly black, high in crime, or some combination of all three, I should say so more plainly, he advised.
The exchange prompted me to think more explicitly about language as I wrote about education in the decade that followed. Some days, the pressure of deadlines made me negligent; and at least a few times I let simplistic, misleading, or jargon-laden language slip into my writing out of sheer laziness. But overall I believe Jamaal’s comment helped make me a more deliberate and considerate writer.
I was reminded of the importance of language during a recent virtual discussion among reporters about the overuse, and misuse, of the term “reform” in education writing. Several journalists pointed out that labeling a change in policy or approach a “reform” (or an advocate of such change a “reformer”) carries a positive connotation since the word means improvement. They expressed concern that journalists who use the term implicitly express support for a controversial education agenda—including charter schools and linking teacher pay to student test scores.
Journalists should certainly strive to ensure they don’t unthinkingly support a given political agenda through the appropriation of its rhetoric. But as the political debate surrounding public education grows more heated, I worry that we all—journalists, educators and policymakers included—are missing the point when it comes to our words. The main reason we should be more scrupulous in using terms like “reform,” “inner-city,” “value-added,” “at risk,” “learning deficit” or “overage” is not to avoid appearing complicit with a given agenda. We should eschew such terms because they undermine and devalue the primary mission of public education and the journalism that documents it: communicating with children and parents.
No thoughtful person would tell a mother: Your at-risk, overage child’s failing school will be reformed, and value-added testing introduced, because of the students’ many deficits. Yet the sum of our worst, laziest rhetoric can have that same effect. At best, such misguided language confuses families, leaving them disengaged. At worst, it offends and alienates families, leaving them enraged. Almost always, it erodes trust with public education’s core constituency.
Just weeks before I had the conversation about the term “inner-city,” I wrote about a national effort to overhaul high schools by making them smaller. I decided to follow over the course of a year a struggling Milwaukee high school called North Division, the first in that city to be broken into smaller schools. In the first installment of the series, I wrote that students and teachers at North Division were “guinea pigs” in a nationwide push for smaller high schools. I thought nothing about the term until I learned, weeks later, that I had deeply offended many people in the North Division community by likening them to animals.
I had used “guinea pigs” as a figure of speech countless times. But through conversations with students and staff at North Division, I realized they viewed the term very differently: What I thought of as a flip cliché was to them yet another denigration of a school and community that had, for generations, been unfairly and sweepingly labeled as “violent,” “failing,” “notorious,” “out of control” and “dangerous.” What’s more, it conjured up a painful, not-too-distant history in which poor, black people were literally used as human subjects in unethical science experiments. I could rationalize forever about what I had meant—and not meant—by the words. But in the end, all that mattered was how they had been received.