Anyone figure out yet how many acronyms it takes to educate a child?  How many you know the meanings of, and don’t know the meanings of?  How many you’d prefer to throw out the window, so that teachers talk to and with you when providing you with reports about your child in school?

You know your child better than any teacher ever will – or at least in a different way!  You held her as a baby, laughed with her as a toddler, and swung with her on the playground.  You hear what she says in the car, and notice how she changes when she interacts with different peers.  But is the particular way in which you know your child appreciated – or even acknowledged – in parent-teacher meetings?

Numerous studies (e.g. Compton, 2009; Lightfoot, 2003; Mehan, 1993; Ware, 1994) have suggested that parent-teacher conferences gloss over what is “really” in the hearts and minds of teachers and parents alike.  In Lightfoot’s study of parent-teacher conferences across the nation, for example, she noticed that parents come to the table with “ghosts in the classroom” – experiences of their own childhood when they were the student sitting in the now-tiny chair surrounded by colorful posters on the wall.  These emotional experiences are hidden from view, and are not something that teachers (nor parents) explicitly bring to the conversation.  Mehan’s study, on the other hand, analyzed the words that adults do indeed use when talking to each other about a student. Basically, he found that:

  • Parents: Talk about their child in historical terms (e.g. “she used to sit on my lap when I read to her” or “she rushed through her math homework in second grade too”)

  • Teachers:  Talk about a student in sociological terms, such as where the student sits in the classroom, and with whom she does or does not work (e.g. “when reading alone at her desk she…”)

  • Psychologists:  Talk about a student using statistical markers that reference other students no one has ever met (e.g. “her verbal reasoning IQ is 112” and “she scored in reading at 4.1”).

That there are three distinct ways of framing a child’s learning in (and out) of school is not surprising given the different experiences each adult has with the child.  What’s frightening is that educational psychologists are rarely if ever questioned by parents and teachers during school meetings.  In his landmark study of IEP meetings, Mehan showed that parents and teachers asked each other to clarify what they meant by something (e.g. what an acronym means or what a teacher means by a child being an “independent thinker”), but neither parents nor teachers asked the psychologists to clarify any of their terms.  It’s as if the psychologists were speaking a privileged language – one that should not be tampered with since it supposedly speaks “the truth.”

Acronyms are not what we have to “watch out for” when collaborating with teachers about our children.  Instead, it’s the technical terms and scales (e.g. “test age was 7.0 to 7.5”) that de-humanize children, placing them into a social laboratory for the sake of objective comparison and study.  Reading levels are particularly troubling.  While knowing your child’s “reading level” can offer a guide for selecting some books out of the school’s library, it offers little in terms of information about your child’s imagination, ability to empathize with others, problem-solve or make connections: key cognitive skills of comprehension!

Furthermore, the ways in which a student’s “reading level” is determined differ according to the assessment used.  Fry’s Readability Formula, for example, references syllables, words and sentences, but does not take into account topic selection or genre, let alone a reader’s interests and background knowledge. Schools might show parents charts indicating where a child’s test score falls in comparison to thousands of other same-age students on supposedly “normed” tests.  As the term implies, however, norm-referenced assessments are graded along a normal curve and thus it is statistically impossible for everyone at a certain age to read “at grade level.” I can go on and on about the myths and misunderstandings of reading development at a later date….

At this point, let me just beg and plea… acronyms save educators time when talking to one another and writing progress reports about students.  Parents can ask for clarification, and teachers can work toward eliminating jargon in their communication with parents.  But technical terms that have little to do with the day-to-day life of a child within his own classroom, own school, own family at home must be seen for what they are: a way to position a child according to someone else’s definition of “normal.”