Ancient mystics believed that one could have the magical power to create reality simply by uttering certain words.  This is the origin of “magical words” like abracadabra, which means “I create as I speak” in Aramaic.  But the belief in using magical words to create reality continues to this day, and not just among cheesy stage illusionists.  The Gates Foundation and their various grant recipients have “in a series of strategy sessions in recent months… concluded they’re losing the broader public debate [over Common Core] — and need to devise better PR.

Common Core supporters haven’t considered the possibility that their political strategy is flawed because they are trying to impose a top-down reform on a hostile and well-organized opposition of teachers and affluent parents.  Nope.  It must be that they just aren’t using the right words.  In particular, they think they need to shift from talking so much about “facts” and “evidence” and start using more “emotional” words.  If only they say the right words, people’s interests will change and the opposition will melt.  Abracadabra!

This faith in magical words is a symptom of a larger disease.  Education reformers have invested way too much in people who do almost nothing except craft political messages.  They try to coin just the right soundbite to fit in their dozens of daily tweets.  But they don’t just repeat these soundbites on Twitter, they use this “messaging” at policy conferences, in essays, and in conversations with each other.  They have put so much energy into perfecting the Twitter-bite that they can no longer think in any way other than in short bursts of spin.  It is rotting their brains.

Unfortunately, I think the rot starts at the top.  The Gates Foundation not only funds a large amount of this messaging nonsense, but engages in this type of slogan-speak themselves.  I’ve been reviewing their own descriptions of the purposes of their grants and have found poetry, like “to support organizations in a strategic visioning engagement to develop their innovative professional development theory of action and implementation strategies” or “to bring together a coalition of thought leaders, policy-makers, consultants and practitioners as part of the Global Education Leaders’ Program (GELP) and support them through a convening.”  Ugh.  

Here on JPGB we’ve been warning about the abuse of the English language in education reform for a while now.  And Rick Hess has joined the party, alerting readers to common phrases that should raise alarms with your BS-detector.  As Orwell understood, the problem with slogan-speak is not just that it muddles debates by obscuring the substance of what people are really saying.  And the problem is also not limited to the fact that degrading policy discourse with this gibberish undermines the credibility of future attempts at serious policy discussion.

The worst problem of slogan-speak may be that it is distorting the thinking of the ed reformers themselves.  They are usually completely sincere when they spout this slogan-speak.  They believe it.  And so their analysis of education reform issues is stunted and superficial.  They can’t think through an issue much more than how it sounds in a Twitter post.  And perhaps this is why they are doubling-down on a top-down standards reform that has no political logic to it.  They just can’t think it through.  So, when it runs into trouble they revert to what they know — more messaging.

8 Responses to Abracadabra

  1. pbmeyer2014 says:

    Jay, more apt, I think, is Robert Pondiscio’s response to Elizabeth Green’s NYT Magazine cover on teaching math. (http://educationnext.org/teacher-quality-quality-teaching/): “Your preferred pedagogy, curriculum, approach, or technology has to be within the skills of ordinary teachers to implement well and effectively. If it takes a superstar teacher it’s a nonstarter.” It’s not about “magical words,” though I understand the thought, it’s about creating policies and programs that our teachers and administrators are incapable of implementing. –peter meyer

    • Greg Forster says:

      But these are not unrelated issues. It is because of their belief in the power of magic words to change reality that CC supporters have been able to avoid thinking about hard questions like the one you raise here.

      • pdexiii says:

        I can draw a parallel between CC folks hoping magic words will carry the day to folks who go to college/get a job making money with smoke and mirrors (financial markets) vs. making things, or teachers who emphasize process and procedure vs. content. We seem to be in a generation of folks who cannot see the substance behind the image, or are at worst influenced by the image.
        When I first saw the CCSS about 4 years ago I only saw it as a shift or re-alignment of content, not this massive upheaval of pedagogy-curriculum. The storm that’s kicked up over this I find amusing, but frustrating.

  2. Mark Dynarski says:

    The disease is widespread and unchecked. Today’s Ed Week includes an article about principals, claiming that ‘Principals’ interest in branding and marketing their schools, and in some cases even their own personas, has grown over time. Doing so can mean creating an online presence, increasing transparency about school operations and performance, and communicating in new and varied ways with the community.’ So, principals should be worrying more about their social media presence? That’s the education issue we want them to be tackling?

    But I digress. The Core should go back to its roots. It was an effort to create one set of standards in place of dozens of sets of standards. It is not necessarily better, or more rigorous, but it represents a modern view of what students should learn, it’s reasonably coherent, and it’s singular. These seem like strengths.

    By itself, messaging is not a strength. If listeners are not understanding the message, or they understand it and don’t agree, messaging is like speaking English in a foreign country loudly and slowly. This won’t work and may irritate the listeners. The Core’s case needs to be built on evidence.

  3. Duncan Frissell says:

    Dick Mitchell wrote 3 books on Eduspeak almost 30 years ago. http://www.sourcetext.com/grammarian/less-than-words-can-say/index.html

  4. quote: “a hostile and well-organized opposition of teachers and affluent parents.” I wasn’t hostile until Bush’s people started saying “blow up the teachers colleges” and “teacher unions are terrorist” then Arne Duncan doubled down on the SIG “Turnn around close the schools and fire everybody.” So please don’t ascribe motives to people unless you are willing to examine the context. When Fordham Institute and Education Next starting using ballistic metaphors at the time of the Boston Marathon I got exceedingly angry. Plus, Ch Finn calls us “marriage wreckers” we are mostly women… as in the home health care labor market — mostly female so I see it as the war on women — the oldest war in the universe.

  5. […] Bush, Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch, David Coleman, E.D Hirsch, Checker Finn, Anthony Cody, and Jay Greene. Last year more than 70 business leaders placed a full page open letter in the New York […]

  6. […] force by themselves, because the needed force is moral, and it transcends mere words. That is the abracadabra fallacy. But words rightly used are needed to transform moral truth into moral […]

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