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.