Why We Need New Ways of Talking About School

Wordle: Thunder words

In 2008, one of my first published articles challenged the dominant discourse in education. I was fed up with the way many of my colleagues and administrators conversed about teaching and learning, believing their words stifled innovation.

I heard grades, standards, depth of knowledge, future, rigor, and test scores all the time. But I wanted to talk about and employ pedagogy relating to community, inspiration, discovery, projects, and the present.​

The way we talk about school has shifted a little bit, but it’s still dominated by language relating to content standards and testing, sometimes pushing aside more meaningful ideas and practice.

Our language reflects our philosophy, and I wonder how often we educators blindly accept words set forth before us without examining underlying belief systems behind the lingo. Here are a few phrases or words worth critically challenging:

College and Career Readiness (CCR)

It has a nice ring to it, no?  We all want our students to be prepared to succeed after they stroll across the stage after graduation. I can’t argue with that.  Are students really CCR by solely posting a minimal ACT score? Of course not, but this is way these words have been twisted. I’m bombarded daily with reminders of the need to increase CCR scores, and I’m tired of it.

Being CCR means a lot more than a qualifying test score.  It means being able to communicate using varied mediums and devices. It means being able to ask questions and solve problems. It could mean building student capacity to identify community and school issues, making their world a better place.

Focusing on CCR scores ignores the fact there can be meaningful, varied opportunities right NOW. Not in the future. “You’ll need that (insert content or test score here) years down the road” is simply an excuse for bypassing authentic teaching and learning in the present.

  • Let’s talk about how we define CCR in our schools. Let’s talk about what we can do right now, in order to provide students valuable skills and experiences in the present.

Achievement Gap

Like CCR, this discourse is focused on student deficit, rather than student strength. Sure, we’d love to see groups of students achieve on more equal levels. But by focusing on what students lack and trying to build a bridge to span these gaps, are we missing opportunities to explore student strengths? How are student schedules altered by focusing on student weaknesses? Then there’s the whole issue of how achievement is defined within this discourse, which is in the context of standardized test scores.

  • Let’s talk about what it means to focus on student strength instead of weakness. Let’s talk about different definitions of achievement.


Yes, it’s great to make informed instructional decisions based on what we know, but you’ll be hard pressed to convince me that teaching and learning is best served by examining quantitative data.  Can meaningful experience in the classroom really be distilled to multiple choice data?

More educators should ask why? when it comes to quantitative data, like Esther Quintero questions in her Answer Sheet column at the Washington Post.  “Excessive faith in data crunching as a tool for making decisions has interfered with the important task of asking the fundamental questions in education, such as whether we are looking for answers in the right places, and not just where it is easy (e.g., standardized test data),” she writes. Quintero is right–we aren’t collected the right data or asking the right questions.

  • Let’s talk about why we collect certain types of data.  Let’s talk about embracing qualitative observations as an alternative or supplement to narrowly-defined multiple choice data.​

I’ll admit I need to do a better job starting these conversations within my own building, and tomorrow’s inservice day will be a good place to start. How about you? What do you wish was talked about more in schools?  Do you agree or disagree with any of my assertions?  How does your use of language in the classroom reflect your pedagogy?  

Related categories: ,
  • Mike Bank

    School Lingo

    Paul, Good stuff!!!!  I feel we have lost focus on educating our young people. We get too caught up in personal agendas instead of common sense approaches.

    I don’t get this big idea that everyone is going to college.  How real is that? State & federal level educators are selling that philosophy, so high schools spend way too much time pulling kids out of class to score an 18 on the ACT.

    So many good points.  Ideas like this need to be taken seriously and pushed onto a larger platform.  Our educational system is failing and anyone who doesn’t think so hasn’t paid attention. 


    • PaulBarnwell

      Mike, I agree with your

      Mike, I agree with your assertion that it’s foolish to expect college for all students.  What’s not foolish is to reevaluate how well our schools are providing varied paths to be successful after graduating high school, whether it be in a trade, two-or-four year university, or other calling.  Too many educators are letting the philosophy and language of high expectations for all students be skewed to a narrowly-defined skill set.

    • PaulBarnwell

      Mike, I agree with your

      Mike, I agree with your assertion that it’s foolish to expect college for all students.  What’s not foolish is to reevaluate how well our schools are providing varied paths to be successful after graduating high school, whether it be in a trade, two-or-four year university, or other calling.  Too many educators are letting the philosophy and language of high expectations for all students be skewed to a narrowly-defined skill set.

  • bradclark

    great points

    I agree whole heartedly.  If we are to truly bring about redesign of schools that meet the needs of future & current students we need to stop using the nomenclature of the past. When we use the words (which might as well read cute little boxes) of the past paradigm, we are allowing  the old paradigm to define the current one, which is different.  

    My word/concept that needs to be redesigned:


    Anyone want to tackle that one?

    • PaulBarnwell

      Pacing Guides, Blah.


      Thanks for chiming in.  While I’ve got no problem with using standards as guidelines, but the notion that cramming huge amounts of content into the pacing guide paradigm is problematic, to say the least.  It’s tough to see so many educators surging on in their content areas, regardless of how well students are understanding concepts and curriculum, all in the name of a standardized test? 

      With English, we don’t have as much of an issue with pacing, because so many of the skills are scaffolded over many years.  History and science, on the other hand…

  • KrisGiere

    Beyond just the words…

    I really appreciate your article.  I’d like to add that what your are seeing goes beyond just the words being used.  It is a perspective that we have ingrained into our societal view of education.  I define that perspective as one that focuses on the byproducts: grades, test scores, degrees, etc.  These are reflections of learning, and reflections if made the focus can turn quickly into mirages.  Granted, these byproducts can be useful diagnostic tools (what most measurements are) if we have a healthy focus on the actual process.  As a society, we’ve lost that focus, and most people won’t or can’t acknowledge it.  If we can break our obsession measuring education, we can change this perspective for the better.  And then I think you’ll see the change for which you are looking.

  • bradclark


    I think you raise an important idea: in this new data-driven era of education (which I will say is also a bit of a misnomer because I am not sure that the majority of teachers know HOW to USE data to drive instructional practice…not their fault b/c teacher prep programs don’t really teach them how in most cases…It is very easy to be swallowed up by the data and to instead be used by the data and grow to resent it) that all of the measurement tools we have available SHOULD be used for diagnostic purposes.  

    The more I use multiple data measures to understand the strengths and deficiencies of my students, I have realized that there really is no-such-thing as Summative Assessment:  there is formative light and formative full-bodied.  Each assessment measures a point in time in the instructional/learning experiences of a student.  We, as educators, need to know how to use the data to further impact the personalized instructional experiences of our students.

    I think you are speaking to this, and I hope I am not mis-interpreting you in the comment above, but I feel like we often let the tools use us instead of teachers using the tools.  This can easily be said as well about the trends, buzz words, vocabulary & thinking of the old paradigm of educating.

    If we are going to drive educational redesign, we must start impacting the educational philosophy of whatever new system we are creating, with new terms and ways of thinking embedded therein.  And we must also be accepting when the next generation of edu-thinkers replaces our paradigm:)  Adaptation and change are hardly ever pretty.

    • KrisGiere



      You are correct.  One of the implications of what I wrote did have to do with using the tool rather than being controled by the tool.  However, I believe that this goes beyond the teacher and the classroom.  I have friends in the K-12 system that never get to see the full depth of the data produced by the tests their students take.  They can’t use what they don’t have.  Additionally, teachers in general are evaluated — formally and informally — by the byproducts because the byproducts are easier to quantify.  The buzz words are easier to spit out on command than explanations of each practice’s value.

      On an only slightly related topic, I listened to a radio show today that condemned zero tolerance policies as the coward’s way out for managers and leaders.  The rational was interesting and holds some truth.  If a manager has zero tolerance policies, he or she never has to account why a punishment is given.  Instead, he or she can just point to the rule.  But most things in life are not clearly black & white and need explanation for fairness to be upheld.  However, explanations are messy and take effort, understanding, and cooperation to be fully heard and explored.  It is easier to just point to a policy and hand out a punishment.  I bring it up because I wonder if some of the motivations for focusing on the byproducts derive from a overvaluing of ease of assessment versus depth of assessment, similar to your point about formative and summative assessments.

      Food for thought.

  • CherylSuliteanu

    imagineering our own future

    I love the ideas being brought up here. I live in a f2f world of “data driven” and “pacing guide” driven education.  Where exactly does the individual child fit into these categories?


    I am imagineering my own schooling system where students are driving their own learning at their personal, cognitive pace, in nurturing, caring environments designed to educate a future responsible citizen.  The idea of having no actual “summative” test, and the idea that qualitative data is as relevant (if not more so!) as a test score is at the heart of my ideal school.  Students in this school will be offered choices that rely on different interests like woodwork, engineering, oceanography, and business, and be given opportunities to practice skills out in their communities through internships and volunteer work. Local businesses will be engaged in supporting students’ acquisition of life skills like managing money, time management, etc… Then I wake up… (for now!!)


    Paul, you said, “Let’s talk about what it means to focus on student strength instead of weakness. Let’s talk about different definitions of achievement.”  YES!!!  I tell my students every day, “I don’t care about your grades, I care about YOU.”  I am telling them that I value their effort toward excellence, and value the individual journey they are on to achieve it in their own unique way.


    Each day our principal has a student deliver “the morning message”: words of inspiration and motivation, at the end of which he has added, “And remember, after high school comes college.” In my classroom, starting on the first day of school, I teach my students to add “… or career.”  I give them the example of my student who is now managing a nearby McDonald’s.  I see him as a VERY successful individual: he has worked hard, earned promotions through responsible work ethics, he is taking care of his wife and child, and he was once my fifth grader.  My current fifth graders understand that I do not expect each one to turn out the same as the person next to them – they know that they are free to choose their journey as they see fit, and if they become responsible, independent, and respectful adults, I will be proud of them.


    I also remind them that they don’t have to do everything in the same order as others.  I give them the example of a former 6th grade student of mine who did not go to college.  She had various jobs after high school, and lived at home. Then, after taking some courses at the community college, she applied to a four year university several hours away from where she grew up, and which not-coincidentally is my alma mater. She moved to the Los Angeles area, completed her university degree in criminal justice, and is now a Deputy with the L.A. County Sheriff ‘s department.   

    Different definitions of success and achievement is the basis of our way of life: where would we be without our “uneducated” construction workers, plumbers, electricians? College is not a definition of success or achievement.  What we do with our lives is what matters. Test THAT!

    • PaulBarnwell



      Sign me up to teach at your model school!  The most valuable learning experiences can’t be measured so easily–it’s a cop-out, and damaging to our students to rely so heavily on acheivement defined by content understanding (MC data). 

      One thing that bothers me greatly is the lack of realistic possibilities students see for themselves.  This, I think, is due to a school structure that doesn’t value exploration and curiosity enough.

  • BriannaCrowley


    As always, you are pushing our community to think, reflect, and examine our practice. I’ve invited others to join us by posting on CTQ’s profile on GOOD.is. Thanks!

  • Sherri Spelic

    Re: new ways of talking about school

    In this moment I can only express my sincere gratitude for the caring voices I have found here. Our children and our students deserve better than what we are generally offering them right now. They are so much more than aggregated data points and while we as individual teachers may be in a position to mitigate the harshness of many of the prevailing messages, our systems, policies and structures can make it very difficult to succeed on that account.  The conversation above gives me hope that progress is possible and that momentum for positive change is gathering.