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Breaking the Code on Buzzwords

June 24, 2011

Money helps campaigns succeed and so do strong messages, especially when the messages are adopted and promoted by large sectors of the public.  Consider  sound bites such as the following: “Take back America”, “Yes we can”, “Drill, baby drill”–all uttered by public figures with publicly stated agendas. Like them or not, the above statements are clearly presented for approval– to debate or to support. However, there are more insidious campaigns taking place through coded messages, many of them sponsored by people with big money and big agendas.  People aren’t really aware that a campaign is occurring because the money goes quietly into multiple sources, spreading the message through media and through apparently well-meaning “grassroots” movements, often preying on sincerely good-intentioned people. Such messages start to emerge in a seemingly spontaneous manner, like a pop song that’s played everywhere you go.  Often we don’t even pay close attention because it seems agreeable and harmless enough. 

Then, much like the inane pop song, maybe it gets stuck in our heads. After a while of this constant exposure, we’ve got many sectors of the population accepting new definitions of things like appropriate retirement age (see link above), or altered notions on civil liberties.  That’s the magic of coded propaganda.  Here are some of the code words and concepts being used to wage assault on public education.

Accountability  This seemingly inoffensive word has become code for an increased emphasis on scrutiny of teachers “performance” & “effectiveness” (two more code words).  I have used the word myself but no longer use it reflexively, and am clear of what I mean when I say it now.  I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that in the past I used it to soften my questions about what we were expected to do, as in, “I agree that we need to be accountable, but is this a valid measure for a five-year-old?”.  The bad part of the frequency of this word (and most of the others) is that we have no consensus on its meaning. “Accountability” has become (among other things) code for the need for high-stakes tests, handily diverting proper debate on merit of the tests. (It’s also used as code for promoting current Department of Education policy.)

Achievement Now when we talk about student achievement, it is almost impossible to separate the concept from the ever-present invisible cloak of standardized test scores.  Unfortunately the tests aren’t really helping kids learn valuable skills. Also, the so-called achievement gap stubbornly persists pretty much along economic lines and the shameful truth is that among non-white children the percentages of children living in poverty are larger.  Higher income in a child’s household tends to be linked to overall opportunities that generally lead to higher academic achievement.  While I agree that we need to address the “achievement gap” (another code phrase), I urge people to critically examine use of the phrase.   It is often used in a cynical fashion, to reference children of color implying concern on their behalf without genuinely interacting with and understanding the deeper issues that affect them.

Teacher Effectiveness What does this phrase mean to you?  Colorado does not yet have an official definition for this loaded term, yet we do have a Senate Bill wherein we can be terminated for lack of “effectiveness”.  As a mother, and as a teacher, I am more inclined to define it as the ability and desire to inspire children to be curious and enthusiastic and active about the learning process.  In my definition, I also include the sincere willingness to work with children of diverse learning styles, backgrounds, abilities and needs and to address these individual differences in a meaningful way.  I could go on at length about what exactly I mean, but it isn’t relevant here.  More relevant is the fact that this is another phrase lacking clear definition, yet it is being used to prompt discussions about teacher pay and patterns of hiring and firing. This leads to the last phrase for today, which Sabrina attacked last week.  However, it will take more than one attack to break this one down.

Status Quo  This is one of the trickiest phrases of all and it seems to have had plenty of time to take root in our national consciousness.  The problem is, when politicians and pundits use it, it tends to be anti-teacher and an automatic backhand to teachers unions as well as to anyone who might question whether the methods we have in place are actually helping our students. While I will not link them here I will say that you can find plenty of hits illustrating my point if you launch an internet search linking this phrase to assorted talking heads.  Yeah, status quo.  Are we also talking about the status quo that diverts money from students and classrooms to pay for standardized testing?  How about the one that waits to officially determine it’s a “crisis” before intervening?  The one that shuffles the least experienced teachers and leaders into the highest need neighborhoods without adequate resources?  Anybody?

I call upon our readers to engage in further code-cracking by listening, questioning and speaking up. As functioning members of a democratic society, we need to think critically and engage in debate rather than just accepting the rhetoric.  I also hope to see many of you at the SOS March on July 31st.

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