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Wednesday, March 19, 2008
What's in a Word?

When things continue at approximately the same speed, we're told that things "basically ground to a halt" -- if those things are economic. And the words "qualified, certified, and competent" can be used to resist improvement and reform, when the subject is education.

Sometimes words can be used to give a very inaccurate impression of the state of things. Sometimes this is intentional, such as when politicians measure their words carefully to defuse an issue without really changing anything. Sometimes it is done ignorantly, because the person using the words doesn't fully understand what is going on. Here are two recent examples; I'll leave it to you to decide whether each is intentionally deceptive or just foolishly unreflective.

When "Ground to a Halt" Means "Continued at Approximately the Same Speed"

We seem to be in an economic recession. We could debate its degree and whether it has any causal connection to the fact that this is a presidential election year. But here is my point: I keep hearing in news broadcasts that "the US economy basically ground to a halt last quarter" (or month or whatever).

The economic numbers that make the news, including the ones we use to measure recessions, are growth numbers. We may say that the gross domestic product grew only 0.1 percent last quarter, that housing starts were down 14.8 percent from last February to this February, and so forth. On the news near-zero growth in an economic metric gets translated into something like "basically ground to a halt," a phrase I've heard repeatedly of late. This reflects a serious lack of reflection on the nature of an economy.

If my car grinds to a halt on I-15, it stops moving. Its speed drops all the way to zero. It is no longer moving. If my computer grinds to a halt -- which happened to my web server the other day -- it stops working. Stops.

In ordinary, non-catastrophic circumstances, economies do not grind to a halt. If growth is very slow or even slightly negative, people are still going to work and making and selling things; people are still buying things. In fact, there may be slightly more economic activity this quarter than last quarter, perhaps 0.05 percent more -- a small change which represents a lot of cars, big-screen televisions, and groceries -- and the talking heads will still tell us the economy "basically ground to a halt."

Suppose I'm driving down the freeway at 64.9 mph, and then I speed up to 65.0 mph -- about a 0.15 percent change. If this slight acceleration were reported in the news in the manner that economic matters are often reported, we would hear or read that my car "basically ground to a halt," despite the fact that it is moving at almost exactly the same speed as it was before, even slightly faster.

Small wonder a lot of people think the economy is tanking. We're being told it's basically dead, because it only grew very slightly.

When "Qualified" Is the Enemy of "Excellent"

I was invited to a forum held at the Alpine School District's headquarters last evening; I will likely say more of this later. A major discussion topic was the characteristics of great schools. When it was my turn to suggest some, I offered these, among others:

  • Every student is taught math by a teacher who is good at math, writing by a teacher who is good at writing, and so forth.
  • Every teacher in a specific subject area (such as math or science) has a full academic degree in that subject area, not just a watered-down "teaching major." (This is Hillsdale College's approach, but is rarely required elsewhere.)
  • Excellence in teaching is measured and rewarded, and mediocrity is removed.

The other participants at my table seemed to like the way I worded these thoughts.

Another table produced something that might sound very much the same: All teachers should be "qualified, certified, and competent." A casual reader might suppose that "qualified, certified, and competent" is a good summary of my thoughts, but it is really quite the opposite.

I am not saying that teachers should be unqualified, uncertified, and incompetent. But each of those adjectives suggests a minimum standard which teachers are required to meet, beyond which -- as we see in practice -- further measurement is avoided and unwelcome. If a teacher is qualified, certified, and competent, many would say, that is enough, and no one has a right to pass further judgment or detect any distinction.

In other words, the typical educational establishment view is that everything is fine if the all teachers can clear the bar when it is set at its minimum height. I am saying that the bar is set too low and it needs to be raised dramatically.

They say, every student should be taught math by a teacher who is certified to teach math, and who completed a college degree with a math teaching major or minor. I say, every student should be taught math by someone who knows a lot of math, is good at it, and is good at teaching it.

If we casually accept "qualified, certified, and competent" as equal to "knowledgeable, skilled, and excellent" (my summary of my longer points), nothing will improve.

Words are not everything, but words matter.

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