Nan Austin

Words can obfuscate the best ideas

The headline “Why education reporting is so boring,” (www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/01/why-education-reporting-is-so-boring/384477) posted Wednesday at The Atlantic website, got my attention.

The article by Alia Wong despaired about edu-speak, the jargon that cloaks even the best ideas and bravest reforms in incomprehensible babble.

A paragraph filled with common acronyms and contorted verbiage ends with this: “It’s difficult to see how these types of phrases, this acronym overload, make talking about – and achieving – reform any easier. If anything, it makes these activities something that overwhelms teachers and parents, and ultimately, gives much education reporting its reputation for being boring and stodgy.”

Well, I completely agree with her take on jargon. Most professions have their insider lingo, which like a secret handshake, makes users part of the club. Education, however, elevates lingo to an art form, and all the financial and instructional reforms in recent years seem to have heightened its use. Perhaps it serves as shorthand for, “Yes, our district is up-to-date,” or “See, I’ve had the same training.”

When I look for quotes, however, I’m searching for phrasing that any reader could understand. Would a grandmother get this? Would my neighbors ever use this phrase? I think sometimes educators are thinking of what other educators will think when reading it in the paper, but the topic usually is not news to folks in the field. The real impact their words can have will be on people who do not speak the lingo.

But now let’s address the premise that education reporting is boring. Seriously? I can go from a kindergarten classroom in the morning to reading a school bond prospectus debt schedule in the afternoon. What other beat has that breadth? I use both sides of my brain every day.

It is true that the online reader meter gives far more prominence to blood, lies and scandal than a thoughtful story about instructional reforms. The challenge lies in making thoughtful stories good stories, period.

For anyone who wants to try education reporting, here are some tricks of the trade:

1. Check and double-check. That means looking up the statistics, checking the study, finding the organization’s donor list. At some point, deadlines intrude on the research, but doing the homework is part of doing the job.

2. Read the fine print. School board agendas, by law, must include all the pertinent policy and spending decisions to be voted on by trustees. Online agendas usually include contracts, policies and other key documents as attachments (if they don’t, you can ask for them). The better ones also say what the fiscal impact of the decision would be. The best ones also note other options and why the staff recommends plan A.

Most meetings include a pile of routine paperwork that gets approved as a block unless an item gets pulled out by request. Sometimes, non-routine items end up in the so-called consent calendar as well.

Everything from charging more to rent school facilities to fresh approaches to student discipline falls under board policies, yawn-inducing pages of legal-speak. While voting on union contracts is an action item, raises for administrators can be called a change in job description and slide under the radar on the consent calendar.

People are people – read the whole agenda.

3. See for yourself. When changes are happening, some people will complain and others will talk about how wonderful they are. Spend some time watching it in action, write what you see and let readers judge for themselves.

Those three key things are the backbone of most education stories. Boring? Bah. Best, most interesting job ever.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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