Curmudgucation: Defining Reformy Terms is Everything

EdChoice has released their annual report about education, with a particular focus on reformy stuff. It's a survey of teachers, parents and the general public, and a look at attitudes and beliefs about many aspects of education.  I've read it, but this time I am not going to run through the whole thing for you, because I want to focus on the power of definitions in framing these kind of discussions.

If you're a bit of a cynic, you will conclude when it comes to surveys like this, the fix is in just because of the way questions are framed. If you are a trusting soul, you might conclude that surveys like this reveal some fundamental differences in how reformsters and public school advocates see some of these issues. Or you might conclude that this kind of a survey is a sort of marketing guide, a report on which methods of framing make it easiest to sell the product.

There are some interesting comparisons between the teacher, parent, and public views. For instance, teachers report far more time spent on test prep. There are also some big differences of opinion about who should drive the accountability bus (though nearly nobody thinks it should be the feds). There are also some interesting results from teachers about the teaching profession, and that probably deserves its own look another day, though the methodology is a little unclear.

There are questions using the "when given more information" model for seeing how attitudes are affected when respondents are given another explanation, which is a perfect method for testing out language to see what moves the needle in your desired direction.

That thinking breaks some questions down in terms of "needs more PR work." For instance, the report finds that nobody is very excited about giving schools A-F grades and so concludes of the low numbers "We should view these numbers as a floor for how well these ratings are communicated to key stakeholders and the public at large." In other words, it's a PR problem. At this point I've read dozens of these sorts of reports, and the one thing one never, ever sees is "Apparently these teachers/parents/stakeholders are seeing problems that we are not seeing. We should go listen to them and find out what we're getting wrong." Instead, we get endless replays of this conversation:

Reformster: (Punches teacher in the face.)

Teacher: Ow!! Hey, knock it off! That is painful and unwelcome.

Reformster: I don't think you're fully understanding what I'm doing here.

To see the framing game really in action, let's go to page forty-five and EdChoice's language for defining the usual popular choice programs:

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)

An "education savings account" in K–12 education—often called an ESA—establishes for parents a government-authorized savings account with restricted, but multiple uses for educational purposes. Parents can then use these funds to pay for: school tuition, tutoring, online education programs, therapies for students with special needs, textbooks or other instructional materials, or future college expenses.

See, it's "government authorized" and "restricted" which might lead someone to conclude that there is some sort of official oversight of how the money is used.  But no-- ESAs are currently black holesinto which money is thrown.

School Vouchers

A school voucher system allows parents the option of sending their child to the school of their choice, whether that school is public or private, including both religious and non-religious schools. If this policy were adopted, tax dollars currently allocated to a school district would be allocated to parents in the form of a “school voucher” to pay partial or full tuition for the child’s school.

I'll give them credit for admitting the vouchers can be used for religious schools. But you'll note that there's no language to indicate these are public tax dollars, and again, no words about accountability or oversight.

Tax-Credit Scholarships

A tax credit allows an individual or business to reduce the final amount of a tax owed to government. In a “tax-credit scholarship system,” a government gives tax credits to individuals or businesses if they contribute money to nonprofit organizations that distribute private school scholarships. A nonprofit organization gives a scholarship to a qualifying student who would like to enroll in a private school of their choice, including both religious and non- religious schools. The student’s parent then uses the scholarship to pay partial or full tuition for the chosen private school.

Well, that certainly sounds more complicated than "Contributors can send a kid to private school in place of paying their taxes."

Public Charter Schools

Charter schools are public schools that have more control over their own budget, staff, and curriculum, and are exempt from many existing public school regulations.

Nope. Framing charter schools as public school continues to be a rhetorical favorite of reformsters. But charters do not have the critical features of public schools-- not the transparency, not the accountability, not the need to follow rues that protect staff and students, not the mandate of responsibility for education of all students in an area.

Defining reform programs is critical. If you tell folks, "Charter schools are a policy by which every child gets a pony," support will likely go up. If you tell folks, "Charter schools are a way of stripping public tax dollars from public ed" or "charter schools are a program for running multiple redundant school systems at the cost of either increased taxes or reduced services for public school students" then support reduces.

This is why surveys like this one are only marginally useful-- when the advocates for a particular point of view set the terms of the discussion, they are tilting the playing field toward their own interests. And Reformsters, like anyone else with something to sell, pay plenty of attention to this. The words "common core" became toxic, so supporters went to "college and career ready standards." Advocates of Personalized [sic] Learning have determined that it's best sold with the fewest possible mentions of computers and technology, and so such language has been scrubbed from the pitches.

Language matters, and that's why we need to watch it closely- probably more closely than the results of advocacy research reports.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation.