Guest Column

Why We Must ‘Decommit’ to Gobbledygook

by William L. Bainbridge

There’s a story that circulated for years among educators about the parent of a high school student in Texas who received a flier from the school administration announcing a meeting for a new program. The note essentially explained, “Our school’s cross-graded, individualized learning program is to enhance the concept of an open-ended learning structure with emphasis on a continuum of academically enriched learning using the identified intellectually gifted child as the agent of his own learning. Major emphasis is on cross-graded, multi-ethnic learning with the main objective being to learn respect for the uniqueness of a person.”

 

According to lore, the parent wrote back to the principal: “I have a college degree, speak two foreign languages and four Indian dialects, have been to a number of county fairs and three goat ropings, but I haven’t the faintest idea what you are talking about. Do you?”

We have learned from the work of the late Ron Edmonds, a professor at Harvard University and Michigan State University, that clear and concise communications are a standard practice of effective schools. In his studies on the correlates of effectiveness, Edmonds found that good educator-to-parent communication can go a long way in improving student achievement.

Weakest Link

Our organization surveys thousands of parents each year in the process of conducting audits of educational effectiveness in school systems. We take great care to make sure the reading level is appropriate, that questions have been worded so that respondents are not led to select a certain item, that questions are clear and unambiguous and that duplication has been avoided. Whenever we conduct a survey, we learn something new about improving the instrument.

When we ask parents about “clear and concise communication” in their school systems, we generally learn this is one of the weakest links in many administrative practices. While most school officials may not even be aware of the jargon that creeps into their messages—after all, everyone at the school understands the insider terms—a few administrators almost seem to delight in using acronyms and jargon that confuse parents, their clients.

Perhaps they think it’s a status symbol to use insider language. Yet this kind of garbled communication, whether intended or accidental, is maddening to parents, especially ones who have recently moved into a new school attendance area.

Over three decades ago, Tom Watson Jr., IBM’s chief executive officer and one of the world’s outstanding business leaders, brought this problem to the attention of his managers. In a widely reprinted note, he asked his employees for help in eliminating something he called “gobbledygook” from their presentations and memos. He presents amusing examples of their linguistic transgressions:

“Nothing seems to get finished anymore—it gets ‘finalized.’ Things don’t happen at the same time but ‘coincident with this action.’ Believe it or not, people will talk about taking a ‘commitment position’ and then because of the ‘volatility of schedule changes’ they will ‘decommit’ so that our ‘posture vis-a-vis some data base that needs a sizing will be able to enhance competitive positions.’

“That’s gobbledygook.

“It may be acceptable among bureaucrats but not in this company. IBM wasn’t built with fuzzy ideas and pretentious language. IBM was built with clear thinking and plain talk. Let’s keep it that way.”

Fuzzy Thinking

Many school leaders could benefit from Watson’s admonition.

Following his advice, try translating into plain English the flier that our confused parent in Texas received. Hmmmm. “At our school, gifted children work at their own pace, with children from different grades and backgrounds, so they learn to respect others.”

Is that it? Hard to tell in the shape the flier is in now. Perhaps if the writers of those original words were asked to translate them, they, too, would see the fuzziness at the center of their ideas.

Another simple technique that can help school district administrators and teachers to communicate clearly with parents is to ask them if their students can understand what they have written. Could a 9th grader get the point in the Texas flier?

Past President of the National School Public Relations Association and former Columbus , Ohio, Public Schools Superintendent Joseph L. Davis suggests all school communications should be focused on 9 P’s: people, programs, performance, policies, problems, plans, priorities, progress and praise.

Davis contends the superintendent's major audiences need to be the board, staff, students, parents and community members. Other measures, like sending frequent notes or memos home to parents containing information about only one important item, are also helpful. Regular newsletters that contain updates on recent and upcoming events should be standard in every school and sent to each child’s parents or guardians, even if they live in separate locations. Such publications should contain telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of people to contact if parents have questions—or need a translation.

Plain talk and clear thinking go a long way in assuring effective communication between educators and parents.

William Bainbridge is a Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and chief executive officer of SchoolMatch, 5027 Pine Creek Drive, Westerville, OH 43018. E-mail: bainbridge@schoolmatch.com