Reforming the way we write about reform, education and more

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.

POSTED BY ON June 18, 2012

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john thompson

I agree and disagree. You are absolutely right about the confluence of terms creating more harm than each individual term. But, the real pain comes from the real reality where all of those factors “violence,” “failing,” “notorious,” “out of control” and “dangerous” are present.

When you can’t use the term inner city or guinea pig, then you can’t communicate accurately about what is happening. When poor kids are being experiemented on, don’t you think that they know they are being treated like lab rats? Its the reality that’s brutal and self-censorship doesn’t help.

When talking with inner city kids (or should I say kids that live in intense concentrations of generational poverty and trauma) the pattern tends to be the opposite as with talking with their parents. Its the adults who demand restraint that often crosses over into political correctness. The kids want honesty.

And its the excess of political correctness, and the perceived soft-heartedness of progressives, that helped give rise to the contemporary “reform” movement. They adopted “brass knuckle” reforms in order to promote a toughness that they saw as necessary. I think they were misguided, but clearly they were reacting (overreacting?) to the Great Society and contemporary liberalism.

You are right that journalists have been wrong in just using the words “reform.” They could have said the “contemporary reform movement,” and the contrasted it with reforms in the progressivism tradition, or “data-driven reform,” or the “contemporary accountability movement.”

That being said, I taught high school. Regarding elementary kids, you are right and I’m wrong.

Leonie Haimson

The words “guinea pigs” are exactly right. Much of what is called education “reform” is indeed large-scale experimentation on poor kids. The administration and the corp reform crowd prefer to call it “innovation” but from privatization to test-based teacher evaluation, the oligarchs are indeed engaging in experiments with no pilot studies, research basis, or even parental consent. When Gates was asked why he contributed $4M to renew mayoral control in NYC, he said that having only one person in charge makes it easier to engage in “experimentation.” Some day, the entire corporate reform policies will hopefully be seen as fundamentally unethical as large-scale medical experimentation, lacking pilot studies or informed consent, is now recognized to be.


So, translate that for us. How would you instead write “Your at-risk, overage child’s failing school will be reformed, and value-added testing introduced, because of the students’ many deficits”?


Sadly, most teachers and parents are too busy to study the codes, so the ideologues and profiteers, who write the legislation and most of the op-eds, win.

I begin to wonder whether journalists, even perfect ones, can resist the myriad obfuscaters.

Steven Pines

This is an excellent post, and I commend Ms. Carr for calling on education reporters and editors to choose their words carefully.

To the short list of loaded words she cites, I would suggest adding this: “for-profit.” Whenever private sector providers of educational services, software or other products are referenced in news articles or blogs, they are invariably referred to as “for-profit education companies.” The instant implication is that these organizations are concerned about nothing but their bottom lines.

In fact, private sector education companies are typically hired by state education agencies and school districts. If they do not perform, they can be fired, or the terms of their contracts changed – as is the case with any business providing a product or service to a public entity.

Why is it then that only in education is an organization’s tax status an acceptable label – and a pejorative one at that? Journalists do not typically rail against “for-profit” airlines, or “for-profit” healthcare providers, or “for-profit” defense contractors.

Private providers of education services and products deserve much more respect than they typically receive from journalists and editors. Indeed, businesses foster innovation and bring capital, research and accountability to help every school and all students do their very best. And while the education industry and members of my association are not perfect, we are committed to quality and continuous improvement — just as what we all should expect from our schools, teachers and students.

Dropping the “for-profit” epithet would be a good place to start. Instead, may I suggest using “commercial,” “private-sector,” or simply “education business?”

Thanks again for a great column.

Steven Pines
Executive Director
Education Industry Association


Steven: Maybe they use the term “for profit” because there are no free and public airlines, healthcare providers or defense contractors. LOL I agree that commercial is a far better term. The term “education business is not so clear–I teach, so I am in the ed biz.


Fabulous post, BTW. I plan to repost it on my own blog. As a teacher and teacher leader, I am very tuned in to the vocabulary of edreform, the overuse of acronyms in eduspeak, and the pitfalls of trying to adequately convey ideas and information about school improvement.

Words Matter | Does Experience Count?

[...] Reforming the way we write about reform, education and more              by Sara Carr [...]

[...] education are not doing what’s best for schools, students, teachers, and communities. Like many other words used in education reporting and politics, “reform” can simply be used as a lazy coreferent for a fairly complex, occasionally [...]

Ted Lewis

The substance, rather than the characterization, of school “reform” is offensive. We should be offended that our kids are being used as “guinea-pigs”, instead of focusing on what is sadly probably an accurate description of this tragic situation. Would Bill Gates allow his kids to be experimented on? We should demand the same conditions for our kids (small class sizes, rich and diverse curriculum, experienced educators…) that he and other wealthy school reform advocates expect for theirs.

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