June 24, 2011 | By Thompson Education | Post a Comment

(This list was originally posted by Andrew Brownstein, one of Thompson’s federal education policy editors, and recently appeared on Title I-Derland, Thompson’s blog on federal K-12 policy.) Listening [earlier this month] to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan repeat, for possibly the 500th time, that No Child Left Behind was “loose on the goals, but tight on the means,” was to become aware of a paradox of the so-called education reform moment we now find ourselves in. From NCLB through Race to the Top, we have lived through one of the most dynamic periods of educational change in our history and yet the rhetoric used to describe that change is often hackneyed, shopworn, dare I say… clichéd. We typically don’t get what comedian George Carlin described as a feeling of “vuja des”— that “strange sense that, somehow, none of this sh*t has happened before.”

Therefore, we hear predictions of countless “moonshots,” dodge those inevitable “silver bullets,” only to be left with meager “low-hanging fruit.” In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell derides the use of clichés, which “even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent.” If that’s true, than what thoughts do our “educlichés” think for us? My colleague Travis Hicks and I thought it might be useful (fun even) to collect a list of the most common of these, and a solicitation of help from the field yielded more than we could handle. From these, a clear pattern emerged. Educlichés, much like education reform, have their own life cycle. To wit:

The Ten Stages of Educlichés

  1. The Heart Will Go On: Since 1983’s seminal report, “A Nation at Risk,” it has been commonplace to hear the state of our schools linked to an assortment of disaster images, none more prominent than the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. If you want to change the status quo, you might say, “There are not enough lifeboats” to save us from the current situation (whatever that may be), or that you’re committed to more than simply “re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
  2. We Must Do Something Real: If you are on a board, strategic planning committee or blue-ribbon panel charged with creating change, it is important to establish at the outset that your work will not become “yet another document on a shelf.”
  3. This Is Bigger Than All of Us: With apologies to Duncan, it is vital to stress that your work is a once-in-lifetime opportunity. It’s “our moonshot” or “our Sputnik moment.” Coincidentally, it was during a period rife with such rhetoric that we began to hear that we were working in “the education space.” (“We’ve become space cadets,” quipped consultant Ellen Forte.)
  4. This Stuff is Really Hard: It’s so hard that it’s like “trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.” If quarreling colleagues stand in your way, it is common to equate working with them to “herding cats.”
  5. We Have No Idea What We’re Doing: When educators are asked to tackle a seemingly herculean task in a short amount of time — witness the stimulus-funded education programs — this is “building the plane while it’s flying.”
  6. But We Can’t Let Anyone Know That: It’s like the toothpaste commercial, where “four out of five doctors surveyed” say the product is good for you. During NCLB, everything was “research-based.” Now, it’s more likely to be “world-class.” But it’s always “rigorous.”
  7. We’re Losing the Forest for the Trees and Vice-Versa. If the rhetoric is getting too vague, it’s time to take a “deep dive” or “peel the onion.” But if you’re getting bogged down in details, you might want to reverse course and look at things from the “10,000 [or 20,000 or 30,000] foot-level.”
  8. This Stuff is Really Hard Redux: At a certain point, it becomes apparent that easy answers are elusive. In these instances, it’s time to declare that there is no “magic bullet” or “silver bullet” to solve the problem. Puzzlingly, these phrases are used interchangeably, although one refers to the Warren Commission’s famous physics-defying missile and the other to killing a werewolf.
  9. Let’s Not Take on Too Much. Jennifer Cohen, financial guru at the New America Foundation, said among her “favorite imagery during Race to the Top” were warnings not to “spread the peanut butter too thin.” Alternately, one might want to advocate going after the easy stuff, aka, “the low-hanging fruit.” (Don’t get me started on the “dance of the lemons.”)
  10. We Did Something: Ultimately, the process reaches a point of Hegelian synthesis, somewhere north of the status quo, but far south of a moonshot. So you didn’t reach the moon, but you “moved the needle” and “raised the bar.” As they say, um, the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Got a favorite educliché that wasn’t on the list? Feel free to share.

Photo Credit: Tom Newby


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