‘Edspeak’ Is in a Class by Itself


The next time you visit your child’s teachers, you might ask them to clarify a few things.

For starters, is little Junior LEP or FEP? Does his school provide a FIP and a FAPE? Or does it offer a SLAPAT, because you may want one of those.

Then there’s the question of whether he is socially promoting under a rubric for assessing English language development. If he isn’t, you might want to check for phonemic sequencing errors or phonological process delays.


This is Edspeak--a language so bewildering that even teachers need glossaries to figure out what’s being said. In the insular world of education, words morph and multiply almost daily as schools dream up new programs and chase new reforms.

Parents and teachers can expect a blizzard of buzzwords this week, in fact, as the state releases Stanford 9 test scores for California’s nearly 8,000 public schools. Adults face a test of their own, figuring out quartiles and quintiles, content clusters and normal curve equivalents.

“It’s unmatched twaddle. Unbelievable bilge. Absolutely staggering nonsense,” says Martin Kozloff, a sociologist from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, who has studied the lingo in teacher training programs.

Some districts, trying to be helpful, publish glossaries. Los Angeles Unified has one featuring 132 pages of acronyms and terminology--with about 4,000 entries--that could tie the tongue of even the most skilled linguist.

Ever hear of misarticulation or normed modality processing?

Unfortunately, the L.A. Unified glossary doesn’t define the terms--only translates them into Spanish. And so, the term “morphosyntactic skills” becomes “conocimientos morfosintacticos.”

Parents, thus, are left befuddled--in two languages.

“Alphabet soup,” says Bill Ring, a father of two Los Angeles students. “I challenge somebody to figure it out.”

Educators, of course, haven’t cornered the market on fuzzy language. Doctors and lawyers, soldiers and politicians--they all speak in code.

But clarity is doubly important in schools, where teachers and parents are supposed to work as a team--and, after all, teach children to communicate. The first step, it seems, would be for the adults to speak the same language.

Critics say jargon undermines this partnership. It allows teachers and administrators to insulate themselves from scrutiny and maintain a grip on power.

“It’s a way to underscore the message that, ‘I’m a professional, give me your kid and leave me alone,’ ” said Jeffrey Mirel, an education historian at the University of Michigan. “All professional language is turf language.”

Teachers babble about “homogenous grouping” instead of saying, simply, that they are lumping together students with similar abilities. Administrators chatter about “psychometrics” instead of calling it what it is: the practice of using tests to measure intelligence, attitudes and other mental processes.

To be fair, plenty of teachers and administrators try to speak plain English. Plenty of parents glean valuable information from teacher conferences and contribute good ideas to their schools.

Still, the language of education can flummox even the most motivated parent. “It’s intimidating,” said Patti Knoester, PTA president of Mariposa Elementary in Brea.

Knoester occasionally jots down a phrase she doesn’t understand at school and looks it up on the Internet rather than appear ignorant.

“I think the administration sometimes forgets that parents don’t know what they are talking about,” Knoester said. “It gets worse as it gets higher up. They become less connected to the parents and the community in general.”

Edspeak dates back nearly a century, to a clique of academics known, fittingly, as “educational engineers.”

According to educational historian Diane Ravitch, these Progressive Movement reformers of the 1920s sought to revolutionize American schools by turning education into a science. They believed that schools should test students and use the results to tailor instruction and determine different academic paths.

That system of education would be far too complex to be entrusted to parents and teachers, the reformers thought. Instead, they argued, “curriculum experts” should rule.

These theorists championed the notions of “child-centered education” (focusing instruction on students’ interests) and “wholehearted purposeful activity proceeding in a social environment” (that one means student projects).

Their ideas--and their jargon--would come to dominate colleges of education, influencing generations of teachers, Ravitch argues in her 2000 book, “Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms.”

Unfortunately, this kind of talk has become the rule rather than the exception in modern-day schools, Kozloff and others argue. It has invaded the most mundane conversations about student achievement.

Even the new superintendent of Los Angeles Unified, a politician by training, has picked up the argot of education. Asked by reporters this week to comment on students’ test scores, Roy Romer called the results “impressive. . . . percentile gains on a normative test.”

The reporters fired back in the same language. “Can you disaggregate the data by ELL students?” one asked.

As education itself has become more specialized, niche programs have sprouted mini-lingos all their own.

Take reading, perhaps the most important subject in school. Teachers engage their students in “phonemic awareness,” “decoding” “systematic, explicit phonics” and “word attack skills.”

And that’s just in kindergarten.

Then there’s “accountability,” the hottest buzzword in schools these days.

Accountability may be the most important reform on the educational horizon, but its lingo sounds like rocket launch codes in Russian. School officials speak of II/USPs and CSRDs, about benchmarking and API growth targets.

“They’re always changing the acronyms that are being thrown around,” said Shana Kensley, 25, a second-year kindergarten teacher in Lompoc, north of Santa Barbara. “It gets a little confusing.”

Case in point: Students still learning English once were known as LEP (limited English proficient). Now they’re called ELL (English language learner).

Why the change? Political correctness. Educators don’t want to label children as limited (that’s the “deficit model”). They want to be positive (that’s the “additive model”).

You might expect veteran educators to be jaded by all these models. But it confounds them, too.

Principal Jeff Carlovsky, with more than 30 years experience, keeps a jargon handbook on his desk at Cabrillo High School in Lompoc, just for those occasions when someone tosses him a zinger.

Carlovsky recently spent five years working in the schools of Washington state. But he returned a stranger in a strange land, unfamiliar with the local dialect. Washington refers to attendance as FTE--full-time enrollment. California calls it ADA--average daily attendance.

“I’m the first one to jump on the bandwagon and say, ‘We ought to get rid of the baloney,’ ” Carlovsky said. “I’d get rid of the 25-cent words, break them down into laymen’s terms.”

Some Districts Offer Jargon Handbooks

Carlovsky’s school district, Lompoc Unified, distributes hundreds of jargon handbooks every year to teachers and parents. The little orange booklets, now in their sixth edition, define dozens of acronyms in English and Spanish. “We run out every year,” said Supt. Debra Bradley.

But Lompoc is one of the few districts to go to such lengths. Most others are too busy keeping their schools safe and making sure students graduate.

A few organizations, including the state Parent Teacher Assn., are trying to fill the void. The PTA last year sent a mailer, with six pages of acronyms and terms, to 5,000 local PTA presidents.

Although brief, the PTA glossary is useful. It not only defines the terms but also offers a pronunciation guide.

And so CSPDAC, which stands for the California System of Personnel Development Advisory Committee, is “kis-pa-dak.” And CALCP, which stands for the California Assn. of Leaders for Career Preparation, is “cal-sip.”

PTA leaders say they are trying to bridge the linguistic divide between school and home.

“Every time a new law is passed or a new test comes up, people immediately break it down into an acronym,” said Pam Brady, vice president of education for the state PTA. “It happens every 10 seconds.”

The PTA glossary catches dozens of acronyms and terms. But because they are so numerous, others are left out.

Perhaps in the next go-round, the PTA can include GPA. No, not the abbreviation for grade point average--this one means Governor’s Performance Award.


Edspeak Glossary

API: The Academic Performance Index is a scale that ranks schools based on their Stanford 9 test scores, the cornerstone of the state’s school accountability system.

Bench marking: Setting academic goals or targets for students to meet at various points throughout the school year.

Child-centered education: A philosophy in which the abilities, talents and interests of children--rather than set subject matter--drive educational practices and curricula.

Content Clusters: Mini-reports for the Stanford 9 test that break down scores in fine detail--showing, for example, how many questions a student answered correctly in subtopics such as statistics or synonyms.

CSRD: Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration program. This federally-funded initiative allows schools and districts to use research-based reforms to boost academic achievement.

Decoding: Linking letters and letter combinations with their corresponding sounds in reading.

FIP: Full inclusion program. This term refers to the placement of severely disabled students in general education classrooms for the entire school day.

FAPE: Free appropriate public education. This legal term refers to the requirement for school districts and other public agencies to provide educational services to special education students at no cost to parents.

FEP: Fluent English proficient. Children who speak a foreign language at home, but understand English as well as their English-proficient peers at school.

II/USP: Immediate Intervention Underperforming Schools Program. Schools in this state program get extra money to conduct evaluations and introduce reforms aimed at raising test scores.

LEP: Limited English proficient. Students who are still learning English.

Misarticulation: Speech problems in which students do not produce sounds correctly.

Normal Curve Equivalent: A test score that measures student performance on a scale that ranges from 1 to 99, with a midpoint of 50.

Normed Modality Processing: TK

Phonemic awareness: The recognition that words and syllables are composed of bits of sound, a key building block in learning to read.

Phonemic sequencing errors: These occur when a student does not link sounds together in the right order to understand the meaning of a word or a phrase.

Phonological process delays: A lag in a student’s development in understanding and producing sounds, leading problems in reading, spelling or speaking.

Quartile: One-quarter of the distribution of scores on a particular test. Students in the top quartile on the Stanford 9 performed as well as or better than 75% of all test takers.

Quintile: One-fifth of the distribution of scores on a particular test. Students in the bottom quintile on the Stanford 9 performed worse than 80% of all test takers.

Rubric: A guideline for evaluating performance on tests or other measures of learning.

SLAPAT: Spanish Language Assessment Procedures Articulation Test.

Stanford 9: The basic skills test given annually to more than 4 million California students in grades 2 to 11.

Systematic, explicit phonics: Reading instruction in which teachers directly teach--and students practice--letter-sound relationships in a sequence of lessons that build on one another.

Word attack skills: A set of strategies to recognize and pronounce unfamiliar printed words.


Sources: California Department of Education, California Board of Education, National Research Council, Los Angeles Unified School District