In academia, English can seem a second language

By From page A1 | July 03, 2014

Academic Jargon Illustration 7_2_14

It's becoming harder and harder to navigate the world of education without knowing your fair share of bureaucratized jargon. (Illustration by Robinson Kuntz)


The “implementation status of the LEA.” Common Core units of instruction. The “process of writing instructional units aligned to the Common Core state standards in English Language Arts.”

The world of education can seem a blur of acronyms and jargon that defy understanding even by an English teacher – or “English Language Arts teacher,” as they’re now formally known.

School principals have a new name too: “district site administrators.”

School district officials aren’t unique in favoring hard-to-follow language – and the Fairfield-Suisun School District joins other districts in California when using LEA  for local educational agency, CASHEE for California high school exit exam and LCAP for local control and accountability plan.

Still, even if every workplace includes abbreviations and jargon, that phenomena in education can leave people wondering just what is taking place at schools their children attend.

“Parents have kind of been left out of the loop,” said retired teacher Colleen Britton of Vacaville.

Britton, a critic of Common Core, said the new standards have added to the confusion.

She spoke about the difficulty elementary school students would face with Common Core math instruction for elementary school students.

“It was about as clear as mud,” Britton said.

Dave Gaut, a Fairfield-Suisun School District trustee who has been in education for 40 years, said district officials understand people don’t know every new acronym.

“We try during board meetings to explain what we’re talking about,” he said. The school district superintendent sometimes asks staff members to make clear matters that may not be well-known to the public, Gaut added.

Acronyms and jargon, however, aren’t all that stall understanding of what school districts and administrators are doing.

At the May 8 meeting of trustees for the Fairfield-Suisun School District, a monthly report “on the Implementation Status of the Local Educational Agency Plan: Common Core Units of Instruction” brought this account from an administrator:

“So, some background for you on the unit instruction. Our unit development has been occurring throughout the school year. After a vendor fair that we held last May that included teachers and site administrators and district staff, WestEd was selected to assist us in the process of writing instructional units aligned to the Common Core state standards in English Language Arts and math.
Forty-two classroom teachers participated in the writing of the ELA units for grades kindergarten through 12.

“Thirty-five teachers – classroom teachers – participated in the writing of the units of mathematics. They were also supported by a number of site administrators, our consulting teachers – some of whom were here just earlier – and our education technology specialists, as well as educational services staff who attended the nine days of training and unit writing in which the teachers participated. Those hours totaled more than 2,000 hours of writing time that also includes time outside of their day. Teachers met after school hours, on weekends, holidays as well as additional release time to try to complete these beyond the nine days of training that were facilitated by WestEd.

“At this point, we have 158 units that have been written by our staff, who know our students and our teachers, and they have taken those standards and grouped them together. These units of instruction are different than what we used to call a ‘pacing guide.’ Our pacing guides were very specific about this standard is taught in these days and very isolated in the standards. These units of instruction see our standards as more integrated – and so what will be a group of standards taught within a range of days. And so what used to be a three to seven-page document that was a pacing guide for one benchmark is now a unit of instruction. They’re averaging about 20 to 25 pages each. They do provide a lot of the same resources and many of which will grow over time.

“We’re also working on what I will call an executive summary for each of those units of instruction that would look more similar to what our pacing guides used to be – as that kind of cheat sheet for our teachers about what are the focus standards in any period of time throughout the school year.”

WestEd is the consultant paid by the Fairfield-Suisun School District, but knowing that may not help in following what took place in the nine days of training by WestEd.

Retired teacher Britton said educators reinvent the wheel “with new terms and new methods.”

“We all have to learn the new terminology,” she added. “It’s the same stuff done a different way.”

For arcane acronyms, said Joan Gaut, wife of the school district trustee and an educator for 32 years, medicine is a better manufacturer than schools.

MRI’s, CAT scans and defibs, she said, may mean little to patients who don’t know about magnetic resonance imaging to create pictures of the body, a computed axial tomography scan to generate a three-dimensional image or defibrillation to deliver electrical energy to the heart.

Moreover, said Gaut, the consequences of not knowing medical jargon are likely more serious than being puzzled by a school district administrator’s account of instructional unit development.

“That’s really frightening when you don’t know what they’re talking about,” she said of doctors.

Gaut acknowledges how frequently educators invoke acronyms.

Sometimes she’ll respond with “and an ABC to you” – which spurs an administrator’s acknowledgement that the acronym may not be known and an explanation of its meaning.

Use of the terms isn’t intended to confuse, Gaut added.

“It’s convenient,” she said. “It’s quick and easy.”

But that may not help much for those outside academia.

“It’s just so hard for parents to understand,” Gaut said.

Students, said Common Core critic Britton, can pay a price when the new state standards bring instruction that isn’t clear.

“You need to keep it simple when the kids are really young,” Britton said.

The murkiness can make its way out of classrooms and school board meetings.

An attorney, representing a developer challenging Fairfield-Suisun School District fees for building, wrote in 2012 about what he thought was a school administrator’s muddled written account.

“The discussion of enrollment in this part of your letter is unfortunately incomprehensible,” he stated.

A demographic analysis, the attorney added, involved semantics that were “at least, challenging.”

Statements that may seem thick with rhetoric extend to executives and municipalities as well.

Fairfield City Council members meeting Tuesday considered a $75,000 contract for a consultant to serve as interim assistant city manager.

The chief executive officer of the corporation providing the temporary assistance wrote to Fairfield that, “We have a bias for producing value-added work for each client that will be actionable and will be implemented.”

Council members approved the contract without comment.

Contact Ryan McCarthy at 427-6935 or [email protected]

Ryan McCarthy


Discussion | 3 comments

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  • HKJuly 03, 2014 - 2:57 am

    Wow, the Gauts are insufferably patronizing. Of course the public knows medical terms that have been standard for decades; any insomniac who's suffered through an "ER" repeat could give a basic explanation of an MRI. Guess it's easier to dismiss the public as stupid, than point out that all this expensively consulted jargon has no clothes. And isn't WestEd just Sharon Tucker's new gig?

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  • Mayor SanchezJuly 03, 2014 - 3:31 am

    Reminds me about "..Imbibing an encephalous mollusk"

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  • AlfJuly 03, 2014 - 10:23 am

    Intentional or not, this makes parent involvement in their children's education more difficult. If I had school age kids right now, my head would spin. And when it stopped, I'd find the first charter school that did not adopt common core standards and send them there. Lastly, the FSUSD trustees should get a new common core name too....former school district trustees

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