The School System and the English Language

by Craig Fishbane

As a veteran teacher of English as a Second Language in the New York City Public School System, I’m used to listening to mangled sentences.  For over ten years, I’ve heard more than my share of phrases like “he goed there” and “to him now the ball give.”  But, increasingly, it seems that it’s the educrats—the bureaucrats at the Department of Education—who are doing the most damage to the English Language.

After all, it’s not the students who go around saying things like, “Each of these connections needs to be modeled separately, and studied for a period of weeks so that students have an opportunity to assimilate, and use the strategy at an independent level, internalizing it for future use.”  That quote, I’m sad to say, comes directly from the instructional guide I was handed on the first day of school.

The world of education has become muddled with a professional vocabulary that is designed to make homework appear profound and spelling words seem scientific. Teachers don’t teach anymore—they implement an instructional program.  Students don’t learn—they apply an appropriate metacognitive strategy.  Children don’t try to get good grades—they strive to meet (or surpass) the State Standards.  We may not be actually fixing the school system but we’ve sure got an impressive way of talking about it.

The use of jargon may be a vice of every profession.  But many educators have taken to actually misusing the English language, making grammatical errors in the name of teaching.  For instance, teachers no longer have a conference with their students or even confer with them.  They simply conference with their students.  Which, I suppose, sounds far more impressive than plain old meeting with students or talking with them.  I just wish that someone had conferred with Mr. Webster to discover that the noun conference is not supposed to be used as a  verb.

Even when the Department of Education uses words correctly, it is often tone-deaf to their deeper and darker connotations.  Just look at the department’s official website and you’ll discover that groups of students, groups of schools and, most amusingly, groups of novice principals are being called cohorts.  The word can literally mean a group of peers.  But it often brings to mind a collection of political thugs:  The United States Army is still searching for Saddam Hussein and his cohorts. The Jargon Writers at the Department of Education evidently know how to use a dictionary—they just don’t know how to read past the first definition or two. In some cases, educational jargon seems to be deliberately designed to deceive.  The phrase “research-based,” for instance, brings to mind a battery of white-coated scientists quietly measuring the sizes of student’s heads to see if their brains have grown during a math lesson.  You can’t get federal dollars for any educational program that is not research-based.  But basing your program on research does not mean testing it to see if it really works.

Take Balanced Literacy, the new reading program that City Hall has mandated for virtually every school in New York City.  Its teaching methods are indeed based on research—academic studies with impressive names like Conditions for Learning and Principles for Learning.   But there is no scientific evidence that Balanced Literacy actually helps students read and write better. Our children, whether we know it or not, are participating in an educational experiment, a field study.  By insisting that Balanced Literacy is research-based, the bureaucrats at the Department of Education are asking us to look away as they shake all the ingredients in the test tube and watch what happens.

George Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” wrote that “the great enemy of  clear language is insincerity.”  I sometimes wonder if the creators of our arcane educational vocabulary are simply spinning a veil of words to hide the fact that little is being done to help our teachers teach and our students learn.  Perhaps I simply need to implement a more appropriate instructional strategy.  Let’s conference and find out.

 

This piece originally appeared in New York Teacher.

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