Hess on Federal Jargon & the Jargon of Venture Capitalism and Wall Street Dictate

Much is now being made of the finalists for the first round of Race to the Top funds. To his credit, AEI’s Fred Hess has apparently started to review the substance of the applications. But his posting does not portend a substantive analysis from this “think tank”; instead we are treated to a kind of mocking that I am, admittedly, not especially opposed to. He writes:

New York’s 908-page application included some choice phrases. It promises, “An intense focus on curriculum and meaningful professional development based on student performance; data-drive instruction where teams develop individual student action plans based on data from formative and interim assessments; differentiated professional development and coaching based on data” (page 6).

It also declares that it will create “clear, content-rich, sequenced, spiraled, detailed curricular frameworks” (yes, five adjectives) for new assessments (page 10).

And, impressive for the sheer amount of jargon that could be wedged into a single sentence, New York’s app promises “to support differentiated professional development closely linked to student growth data, identify coaches and mentors using effectiveness ratings closely tied to student growth data, and build data-driven feedback loops between professional development, coaching/mentoring activities, and teacher effectiveness” (page 144).

But the problem here is not “jargon” (defined as special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand) as it is reasonable for a field to develop a language specific to its scope of practice. Rather, the problem is that the phrases selected for mockery reflect the tendency to be irrational. “Differential professional development” is, if the notion of professional development is to be taken seriously, is at best redundant. PD would necessary include the idea that the prescribed development would be targeted to address a particular scope of practice; that is, the word differential is added to make us feel as if something more sophisticated is offered. Or, because we’re sick of hearing about professional development, we’re now going to advance by adding adjectives, such as differential, or, to take another example, content-rich, as if we would advocate for content-poor curriculum.

But wouldn’t it be more helpful to think about the conditions that give rise to this outcome of irrational verbiage? Isn’t the RTTT fixation on competition (like that of AEI) part of the context that gives rise to the degrading of thought by rendering it one long commercial aimed at convincing someone to pony up the dough?

Is Hess’s alternative any better? Not only do we find a “jargon” emanating from the AEI, but this jargon does not represent an improvement, but a call for a complete destruction of public education in principle as well as in practice. Here the most important notion is that of “greenfield”, borrowed from the real-estate developers, who are, by the way, in on the charter school scam to syphon off public funds (see, for example, Schools Matter). We are to accept that our only choice is between the irrationalism of technocrats and the “freedom” for venture capital to destroy the “contaminated land” of public schooling and, without restriction, let it plow the “clean, undeveloped land (greenfield)” that results as the public treasury is open to the likes of KIPP and Uncommon Schools.

Unless reforms takes as their starting point the articulation of the rights and responsibilities of all teachers, students, parents and administrators, a rationale discourse about improving education will not be forthcoming. In its place will be more disinformation about the problem being lack of choice, standards, “security,” and so on. The problem is not one of a lack of choice, but rather a lack of popular political power over their schools and other social institutions. Choice schemes–“Greenfield”-style reforms in Hess’s language–will only result in denying more children the right to education, denying parents and communities control over their education, resulting in even more segregation and inequality.

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