Educationese Forever!

Outlawing the passive voice and simplifying sentences? It’s a radical call to undo the way educators often write by Ron Dietel

Help! Educationese, the language often spoken, written and understood only by educators, is in grave danger. In fact, as president of the National Society For Saving Educationese and Very Long Education Phrases and Acronyms, I recently was forced to put some of my favorite words onto the Endangered Educationese List.

Systemic, longitudinal, paradigm and constructivist now join many of my favorite acronyms on this list, including GLARRC (Great Lakes Area Regional Resource Center) and even TECSCU (Teacher Education Council of State Colleges and Universities). Can my own beloved CRESST (the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing) be far behind?

Even worse, anti-educationese radicals recently proposed national legislation outlawing the passive voice in all education communications, even school district newsletters. Tell me this isn’t so. These revolutionaries purport that the use of shorter sentences, simple vocabulary and the active voice will make education articles easier for policymakers, parents and reporters to understand. They even think that these groups might do something with this information, such as improve learning. Atrocious! If we don’t stand up and fight now, these extremists might soon suggest we drop the most famous words ever written into a research study: “More research is needed.”

The All-Out Attack
The following is a blatant example of how these fanatics rewrote a perfectly fine sentence from a school district’s evaluation study. The full report was a blue-ribbon award winner at last year’s American Educationese Convention in Whatchabeenupto, Miss.

“Specifically, in the spring of 2007, the XXX school district evaluation team examined the effects from a state-sponsored formative assessment program in three elementary schools to determine if practitioners accurately implemented the assessment program, if they used the data to improve their own practice, and if they applied the results to provide students differentiated instruction, drawing on what the practitioners had learned during an intensive rater training program from a pilot study in the previous year.”

The simpler-is-better writers had the audacity to edit the above 77-word sentence to:

“Did the formative assessment program improve achievement?”

Admittedly, seven words read a lot faster than 77, but I believe they lost the critical context of a carefully crafted run-on sentence.

Additional Resources

The author suggests the following resources to help improve writing:

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As for long titles, the following was one of my gold-star favorites, a clear winner in the 2007 awards category of Longest Possible Title Without a Colon: “Perceptions, Results and Effects of the Hifalutin School District’s Culturally Responsive After-School Parent Services Program on 8th Grade Language Arts Students in the 2006-2007 School Year.”

Notice how the original authors, all university experts, painstakingly wrote their unedited version above without a colon, yet the simple-writing proponents dared shorten it to the following: “Evaluation Results From an After-School Parent Program.”

The university authors were certain that the editors at journals, magazines and local newspapers would be quite impressed with their original long report title. Further, when presented at next year’s AASA National Conference on Education, the evaluators believed that so few people would attend the session that they wouldn’t even need a microphone. If forced to use the shorter title, they feared the room might not be large enough for a big audience and perhaps even a few reporters might show up. Heaven forbid!

Little Evidence
Compared to my many years of successful educationese writing experience, these simple-writing advocates provide little evidence to support their claims. Look at this ridiculously short quote from the American Psychological Association manual: “Short words and short sentences are easier to comprehend than long ones.”

Ha. Who cares about comprehension? I like a bit of confusion, just like that famous philosopher named after the term. He said, “No matter where you go, there you are.” I say, no matter what I write, there it be.

The simple-language activists go so far as to indicate that writers who avoid educationese might get published more often, again quoting from the APA manual: “The author who is frugal with words not only writes a more readable manuscript but also increases the chances that the manuscript will be accepted for publication.”

Publication, who needs it? I certainly don’t want anyone to consider me an expert in my field or invite me to speak at some far-off conference in Hawaii. (Unless perhaps they cover my expenses and attach a nice honorarium.)

The simple-writing fanatics even claim that grant proposals stand a better chance of acceptance if written in plain English. Big deal. I haven’t had a grant proposal accepted in years and it doesn’t bother me one bit. Besides, if I got the money, I’d have to do more work. Ugh!

These lunatics have gone as far as to develop a set of principles for better education writing. I list them here at considerable risk to my own life and as a defender of every educationese user’s right to free speech, and long speeches at that.

Writing Manifesto
Read the following manifesto in order to avoid getting caught up in the movement’s simple-writing mantra.

No. 1: Shorten your sentences. Keeping all sentences to less than 25 words will likely improve your writing more than any other thing you do.

No. 2: Shorten your paragraphs. Five sentences in a paragraph is usually enough to communicate a central idea and provide support.

No. 3: Use short titles.
Short titles are easier to remember than long ones and can help you reach larger audiences. Movies and books like E.T., Star Wars, Charlotte’s Web and The Da Vinci Code are a few examples of short titles. “A Nation at Risk” is one of the most famous education reports of all times, yet none of us probably remembers its longer title, which includes a colon plus five more words, “The Imperative for Educational Reform.” Each of us will remember No Child Left Behind for the rest of our lives: Four simple but catchy and effective words.

No. 4: Learn from newspaper articles. Most newspapers, such as USA Today, communicate complex information in concise, easy-to-read articles. Study how reporters craft their stories and how editors make them fit into available space. Note that in some cases, a single well-written sentence from a newspaper article can effectively stand alone as a paragraph.

No. 5: Have a strong lead. Famous writers can get away with a lengthy introduction. The rest of us have one or two paragraphs to engage the reader. Humor, a startling (but accurate) statistic, or an unrecognized new problem are a few ways to draw people in. Conclude your story by tying it back into your lead for a very professional (i.e., clever) bookend approach.

No. 6: Use visuals effectively. A picture is worth a thousand words, but unfortunately, many graphs, PowerPoint slides, tables and charts contain so much information that they detract, rather than support, the text. A good rule of thumb is no more than six information points on a graphic.

No. 7: Volunteer as a reviewer or take a writing class. Reading and critiquing writing by others will help you become a better writer yourself. Look at what doesn’t work in articles, magazines and books; then train yourself to avoid similar mistakes. Consider taking a short class, even online, to improve your writing.

No. 8: Avoid educationese language. The word “practice” in education is usually synonymous with the word “teaching,” but anyone outside of education, such as parents, may not understand the term. At Dictionary.com, there are more than a dozen definitions of the word “practice,” not one of which mentions the word “teaching.”

No. 9: Have a non-educator read your article and provide feedback. Almost anything you write can end up on your district website, so go ahead and write for a public audience in the first place. Having a non-educator review your article and provide useful feedback can help you communicate effectively to everyone in your district or school.

No. 10: Use the active, not the passive, voice. Passive voice — The study was conducted by the research team. Active voice — The research team conducted the study. The active voice uses fewer words and nicely places the subject before the verb.

No. 11: Use the tools at your disposal to improve your writing. Most writing software includes a feature that produces readability statistics. Use this feature to check your article’s percentage of passive sentences, grade-level readability and reading ease. A Flesch reading score above 60 represents high readability. A score below 40 means trouble.

No. 12: Urge the reader to take action. It’s fine to raise awareness of an important issue. But getting someone to use that awareness or new knowledge to improve education will leave you and the reader with a satisfied feeling.

Act Now
They make it sound so simple, don’t they? Indeed, the anti-educationese revolutionaries often point to a series of research studies by Princeton University Professor Daniel Oppenheimer. He found that authors who use complex text are rated as less intelligent than writers who use simple text. How dare they call us stupid! I think Oppenheimer is merely jealous of our ability to communicate in a foreign language and impress colleagues with our vast educationese vocabulary.

Warning! These radicals are a small, but growing, group of individuals determined to improve writing and communications even if it threatens the job of every copy editor in this nation. Their persuasive arguments to write in a language that even your mother can understand, combined with their false promise that simplified writing might land you a quote or two in Education Week, are treacherous.
Join me in declaring war against these extremists and prevent taxpayers and politicians from truly understanding what we do and why we do it. Get out of your La-Z-Boys and join me in shouting out to the world: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to let anyone take away my educationese. Educationese forever!”

Ron Dietel is the assistant director for research use and communications at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA. He is the author of Get Smart! Nine Sure Ways to Help Your Child Succeed in School. E-mail: ron@ucla.edu