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A Parent’s Guide to Educationese

Today's jargon explained and educational practices critiqued.

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Education is jargon-larded and parents need to know a fair amount of it. Here are definitions of 35 common pieces of educationese.

To mitigate the boredom of learning jargon as well as to empower parents to question dubious practices the schools impose on children, I embed critiques of today's education enterprise.

Those critiques are more justified than ever in light of the just-released PISA results. They are American education’s latest embarrassment in its unbroken string of poor performance compared with other countries even though the U.S. spends #1 per capita in the world on education.


The Common Core is an elaborate set of goals and objectives required in most states. I couldn’t meet many of even the 8th grade Common Core math standards and I have a Ph.D. from Berkeley, including having gotten A's in six graduate-level statistics courses. I have no idea why such standards are required when students are allowed to graduate from high school without, for example, the ability to estimate or budget.

Ability grouping: placing students into groups based on performance in class and on standardized tests. Especially K-8, many schools have largely abandoned ability grouping to avoid student stigmatization. Alas, while that makes egalitarian policymakers feel good, it decreases student learning: Meta-analyses find that ability-grouped classes benefit both high- and low-achieving students.

Differentiated Instruction provides instruction according to the different ability levels in a classroom. That is a Herculean challenge in today’s mixed-ability classes, only partly ameliorable by the use of technology.

Technology integration (sometimes called “blended instruction”) occurs when teachers use technologies such as tablets, smartphones, and smartboards to enhance learning. It’s key to making individualization even marginally possible in mixed-ability classes.

BYOD stands for Bring Your Own Device, for example, laptop, phone, or tablet for classroom work. Egalitarian concerns have restricted their use because the ACLU has argued that not all students can afford their own devices. But with the U.S's massive education spending, buying a basic tablet for low-income kids would seem a good use of taxpayer dollars if it were paid for, for example, by a tiny reduction in the education bureaucracy.

Explicit instruction, also called direct instruction is the first of a number of buzzwords on this list that slaps varnish on a mundane old method. Explicit instruction simply refers to the teacher telling students what to do and how. It is in contrast to inquiry-based learning, which is more student-directed.

Scaffolding is another fancy new buzzword for the old and obvious teacher practice of using tactics to make it easier to learn a new concept: for example, reminding students of how it ties to previous learning, demonstrating something, or showing a flowchart to make a process clear.

Guided reading is another example of jargon that makes new-sounding and more impressive what teachers have always done: In a group, helping kids to read better: selecting material, listening to them read, discussing the text, etc.

Student engagement. Yet another piece of puffery, student engagement simply means that students are actually engaged in the learning process. Alas, that’s easier said than done, especially for the many students who have little interest in geometric proofs, learning about an ancient war, and balancing chemical equations, all of which are part of the Common Core curriculum.

In the flipped classroom, students watch a video lesson at home taught by a top teacher, then do “homework” at school with the regular teacher presemt. That enables all students to be taught by a fine, resource-rich teacher online at home. That is an excellent idea.

MOOC (Massive Open Online Course.) These are open-enrollment online courses, usually free or low-cost, primarily college-level. They often include student forums to allow for discussion. Because so many MOOCs are available and easily screened online, including with student reviews, you should be able to easily find a high-quality course. That should help you skirt the major knock on MOOCs: low completion rate.

Project-Based Learning (PBL) This overlaps significantly with “Inquiry-based learning." It's a teaching method that has students spend considerable time investigating a real-world, engaging, and complex issue. A good approach.

STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math.

Higher-order thinking skills refers to analysis, synthesis, and evaluation rather that, for example, rote memorization.


There are two common public school alternatives to the standard:

Charter schools are public schools that the government has released from some of its mass of laws, policies, and regulations.

Magnet schools are public schools with a focus, for example, fine arts or STEM (see above.) Alas, magnet schools for intellectually gifted kids have been restricted.


ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) is the successor to No Child Left Behind. The aforementioned PISA results demonstrate that despite massive spending and threatened punishment for non-compliance, governmental edicts far from ensure the demanded result.

Portfolio assessment: uses student work to document progress or achievement. It also includes student self-assessments.

Formative assessment: A fancy term for a pre-test or assessment given during a unit to guide instruction.

Summative assessment: An evaluation at the end of a unit to determine student performance.


“Special needs” students have become high priority in the public schools. Special-needs education is particularly laden with educationese: Here are common examples:

IDEA (The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) is the core federal governing law mandating the rights of special education students in the schools.

Least restrictive environment. This a key principle in IDEA. It says that mentally and/or physically disabled students should be educated with non-disabled students to the greatest extent appropriate. The impact of this on non-disabled children is inadequately considered.

Mainstreaming. (Inclusion is a largely overlapping term) This is the most common manifestation of the principle of “least restrictive environment.” It usually means that a mentally and/or physically disabled student spends all or at least part of the day in a regular class, with accommodations made to meet that student's needs.

Accommodation refers to deviations from what teachers would otherwise do in accommodation to a special-needs’ child’s difficulties.

IEP (individualized education plan) IDEA mandates that an IEP be developed and regularly reviewed for every special-needs student. It usually specifies individualized learning objectives, perhaps including how the teacher(s) (regular and special education) are to work with the student to achieve objectives, as well as the roles of any other professionals: speech therapist, school psychologist, and in some cases, more intensive involvement, for example, a one-on-one in-class aide.

It has long seemed unreasonable that so much more money is spent on special-needs students yet intellectually gifted kids are specifically excluded despite their having so much potential. That potential is often wasted because, as highlighted in these definitions, so much attention in today's U.S. schools is given to the lowest achievers.

ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) refers to a person with difficulty sustaining attention, focusing on information, perhaps who also demonstrates hyperactive behavior. In many cases, stimulant medication is quite helpful, especially in concert with behavioral coaching.

GED (General Educational Development test) is a group of four tests that certifies that a student has learned the equivalent of what would be learned in a standard high school education.

ELL (English Language Learner.) That is the term currently deemed politically correct rather than English-as-a-second language student.

Bilingual education. English-language learners are taught primarily in their native language and slowly, over years, given more exposure to English.

Dual immersion classes. Native speakers of English are placed in the same class as non-Natives with the goal of both groups becoming bilingual.

Title IX: laws to help assure equal access for both sexes. Title IX has been key to increased spending on sports for females.


Reading this should make clear that high priority in today's U.S. schools isn't average students, let alone our best and brightest. It’s low achievers. Could that partly explain our continued embarrassing performance compared with other countries despite our spending #1 in the world per student?

Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D from the University of California, Berkeley specializing in the evaluation of education. He subsequently taught in Berkeley's Graduate School of Education. His website is