Glossary of Educational Terminology

Ever wondered what educators mean when they refer to “constructivism” or “multicultural education”?

Parents, teachers, and the general public don’t always speak the same language. But, even when we do, what we mean by a word or phrase is not always the same. On the following pages we offer explanations for some terms used by educators and/or social change activists.


ability grouping – A common instructional practice of clustering students according to their academic skills. Ability grouping allows a teacher to provide the same level of instruction to the entire group. Also called tracking.

accreditation – The process by which an organization, usually the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, sanctions teacher-education programs. The council gives certain programs–about 500 of the some 1,300 that prepare teachers–its seal of approval for quality. States also approve teacher-education programs, by means of issuing teaching licenses to their graduates.

attention-deficit disorder (ADD) – A disorder characterized by the inability to concentrate and, in some cases, impulsiveness and hyperactivity. Between three and 10 percent of the nation’s school-age children are thought to have the disorder. Some children qualify for special-education services on the basis of having this disorder. The children who are hyperactive are often labeled ADHD, for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

advanced placement – A series of courses administered by the College Board that high school students can take to earn college credit. Students must master a generally higher level of coursework and pass an accompanying test.

affirmative action – Refers broadly to policies that are focused on race, ethnicity, and gender. Examples include making an effort to hire minorities or setting aside a percentage of public contracts for minority firms. The term was first used in the 1960s, when Presidents Nixon and Johnson signed executive orders requiring businesses with federal contracts to establish goals and timetables for hiring minorities.

alternative assessment – Any form of measuring what students know and are able to do other than traditional standardized tests. Alternative forms of assessment include portfolios, performance-based assessments, and other means of testing students.

alternative schools – This term broadly refers to public schools which are set up by states or school districts to serve populations of students who are not succeeding in the traditional public school environment. Alternative schools offer students who are failing academically or may have learning disabilities or behavioral problems an opportunity to achieve in a different setting. While there are many different kinds of alternative schools, they are often characterized by their flexible schedules, smaller teacher-student ratios and modified curricula.

assessment – An exercise–such as a written test, portfolio, or experiment– that seeks to measure a student’s skills or knowledge in a subject area.

at-risk – Describes a student with socioeconomic challenges, such as poverty or teen pregnancy, which may place them at a disadvantage in achieving academic, social, or career goals. Such students are deemed “At risk” of failing, dropping out, or “falling through the cracks” at school.


basal readers – Elementary school books that incorporate simple stories and practice exercises to progressively reinforce what students are learning.

basic skills – The traditional building blocks of a curriculum that are most commonly associated with explicit instruction in early elementary language arts and mathematics. Basic skills have historically been taught in isolation. Basic skills include teaching the letters of the alphabet, how to sound out words, spelling, grammar, counting, adding, subtracting, and multiplying.

bilingual education – An education program for children whose native language is not English. Children are taught for some portion of the day in their native language, with the goal of moving them into mainstream English classes as quickly as possible–usually within two or three years. Ideally, such programs allow students to keep up academically because they can learn subject matter in their native language while they learn English.

business-education partnerships – Various school-reform coalitions formed by private businesses and schools or school districts. Partnerships have evolved from individual school partnerships, to the introduction of management principles into public schools, to a range of reform ideas, from school choice to higher performance standards, most recently focused on the systemic reform of schools.

Brown v. Board of Education – The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that banned racially segregated schools, saying that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” In mandating desegregation, Brown v. Board of Education led to widespread busing.

Busing – Racial integration of schools achieved by busing students to schools where their attendance would allow greater racial integration. Critics in recent years have questioned the efficacy of court-ordered busing.


Carnegie units – A credit representing the completion of a core of high school courses. Developed in the early 1900s to set norms for curriculum and course time in public schools across the country, these are named after the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which first suggested the practice.

character education – Deliberate instruction in basic virtues or morals, as opposed to weaving these values into every lesson. A national movement is underway to include character education in school curricula as one means of alleviating the current deficit in school-children’s values by strengthening their moral fiber.

charter schools – Schools run independently of the traditional public school system but receiving public funding, run by groups such as teachers, parents, or foundations. Charter schools are free of many district regulations and are often tailored to community needs.

civic education – The teaching of civics, which addresses the roles and responsibilities of citizens and their governments.

cognitive science – A relatively new area of study that focuses on how people think and learn. Research in the field cuts across a wide range of disciplines–including computer science, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Cognitive scientists question the traditional model of schooling in which teachers lecture and drill students. Rather, they say, children actively construct or make meaning of their world based on interactions with their environment.

collaboration – A partnership of professionals and community members who work together to improve the condition of children and families. Such partnerships generally involve some combination of educators, human-services professionals, community groups, parents, businesses, government officials, and neighborhood leaders.

College Board – A nonprofit organization that assists students in moving from secondary education into higher education. The College Board is composed of colleges, universities, and other agencies and associations that provide services to secondary and post-secondary students. Programs administered by the College Board include the SAT and the AP program, among others.

constructivism – Constructivist theory posits that children build new information onto pre-existing notions and modify their understanding in light of new data. In the process, their ideas gain in complexity and power. Constructivist theorists dismiss the idea that students learn by absorbing information through lectures or repeated rote practice.

cooperative education – A program that allows students to receive credit for career work done in their field of study. Businesses create plans for training and evaluation of students.

cooperative learning – A method of instruction that encourages students to work in small groups, learning material then presenting what they have learned to other small groups. In doing so, they take responsibility for their own learning as well as their classmates’.

corporal punishment – A traditional method of disciplining students, the term usually refers to paddling. Since 1975, the practice has been banned in most states after reports of abuse.

creationism – Creationism is the product of a literal interpretation of the Biblical story of Genesis. It holds that God created the world in a single act approximately 6,000 years ago–and that human beings, animals, and other forms of life exist today much as they did then. To many creationists, the theory of evolution is heresy. They argue that fossil records and other scientific evidence of evolution are either false or were themselves created by God.

critical thinking – The mental process of acquiring information, then evaluating it to reach a logical conclusion or answer. Increasingly, educators believe that schools should focus more on critical thinking than on memorization of facts.

curriculum – The subject matter that teachers and students cover in class.


decentralization – The breakup and distribution of power from a central government authority, usually including a reduction of the personnel and funding of that authority. In education, the term is most frequently used to describe the transfer of school policymaking authority from the federal to the state level, or the transfer of decision-making authority from the state level to districts or schools.

desegregation – Plans aimed at reducing racial isolation in schools and improving racial balance.

direct-lending program – A financial aid program administered by the U.S. Department of Education. The program provides loans for higher education to students through the institution they attend, rather than through private lending institutions.

distance learning – The use of telecommunications technologies, including satellites, telephones and cable-television systems, to broadcast instruction from one central site to one or more remote locations. Typically, a television image of a teacher is broadcast to students in remote locations. This may also be done using interactive videoconferencing. School districts frequently use distance learning so one teacher can teach to students in more than one school at once. Rural districts often rely on distance learning.

Drug-Free School Zones – In response to public concern over an increase in illegal drug use during the 1980s, the U.S. Congress and many state legislatures have passed laws designating areas around schools as drug-free zones. Persons caught or convicted of possession or use of illegal drugs in these areas are subject to increased penalties under the law. The actual area of the zone and the penalties vary from state to state.

dyslexia – A reading impairment, thought to be a genetic condition, which affects up to 10 percent of the nation’s school children. One trait of dyslexia might be transposing letters. Children born to parents with dyslexia may be eight times as likely to have the condition.


e-mail – Electronic mail. The delivery of correspondence, including graphics, by electronic means, usually by interconnecting computers, word processors, or facsimile equipment.

emotional and behavioral disorders – Also called EBDs, disorders characterized by consistently aggressive, impulsive, or withdrawn behavior, including schizophrenia. Each state classifies these conditions differently. Clinicians generally consider behavior to be an EBD if it impairs personal, social, academic, and vocational skills.

edutainment – A general classification for software programs that combine elements of instruction and entertainment, including video, animation, and music. Educators disagree on the educational value of most ‘edutainment’ software.

enrichment – Enrichment programs–originally designed primarily for gifted students, but now widely used with at-risk children as well–are intended to supplement the regular academic curriculum for students who might otherwise be bored with their classwork. For the gifted, they are an alternative to acceleration, so that even the cleverest students can remain in class with children their own age and maturity, yet be adequately challenged. Sometimes run as pull-out programs, enrichment programs are also an alternative to creating entirely separate gifted classrooms. Enrichment is intended add value to the curriculum, often in a fun way, through such activities as special projects, guest speakers, concerts, museum visits. Many educators have found that what was originally considered enrichment is actually worth incorporating into the regular curriculum.

environmental education – Efforts to teach about the ecosystems and the environment, and how changes in them can affect the health and survival of people, other species, and natural resources.

evolution – The theory of evolution holds that a one-celled organism spontaneously emerged from steaming, nutrient-rich seas about 3.5 billion years ago, and that increasingly varied and complex organisms developed through such processes as genetic mutation. Over time, an unforgiving environment killed the weaker members of each species, and sometimes the entire species, in favor of better-suited ones. Scientists say evidence supporting the theory of evolution includes fossil records, the existence of similar structures in different animals, and the fact that all living things share similar biochemistry. They say the theory of evolution is not only scientifically valid–it is the unifying theory of biology.

experiential education – Education that stresses hands-on experience, accomplished by field trips, internships, or activity-oriented projects, as opposed to traditional classroom learning.


financial aid – Any combination of monetary assistance available to students attending institutions of higher education. That aid can consist of low-interest loans, needs-based grants, scholarships, work-study funds, and fellowships.


gender bias – Conscious or unconscious differential treatment–in a textbook or by a teacher or employer–of females and males based on their sex.

Generation X – Generation X, or Gen X, refers to the generation of Americans born between the mid-1960s and the early-1980s. Gen Xers, which fall between baby boomers and millennials, number around 65 million. Members of this group are approaching the middle of their working careers and potential peak-earning years.

gifted students – Pupils who are considered to have the capacity to achieve beyond the norm–either because of their IQ scores, their demonstrated ability in the classroom, or both. Once limited to academic skills, the definition of giftedness in many schools is expanding to include children with a wide variety of talents.

Gun-Free Zones – State legislatures, in response to public concerns over violence in schools, have in the past few years adopted laws which heighten penalties for those persons who are convicted of the illegal possession or use of a firearm in and around school property.


hardware – In computer talk, the electrical and mechanical equipment used in telecommunications and computer systems. Contrasted with software, the programs and files that run in the equipment.

home schooling – The practice of parents’ teaching their children at home rather than sending them to public school. According to the U.S. Department of Education, an estimated 500,000 students–1 percent of the nation’s school-age population–are now home schooled.

hypermedia – A nonlinear way of presenting information that allows users to access related works or images from a single computer screen. For example, a user reading an encyclopedia entry on jazz could also hear excerpts from recordings, read biographies of jazz artists, and view photos of them. Also known as “hypertext.”


IDEA – A landmark 1975 federal law, originally known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Different portions of the law cover children from birth to age 21. The law has been amended several times but originally addressed children with disabilities who were kept out of the public schools, and taught either at home or institutions.

illiteracy – The condition of being unable to read. People were once considered illiterate if they could not sign their name. More recently, the definition has been expanded so that literacy tests now measure people’s ability to perform everyday tasks, such as understanding a bus schedule.

impact aid – Payments by Congress to school districts where the local budget and enrollment is affected by the federal government’s presence, for example, military bases and Indian reservations.

in-service training – The workshops and lectures designed to keep teachers abreast of the latest developments in their field. The training is called “in-service” to distinguish it from “pre-service” training, which means undergraduate coursework taken by those intending to teach.

inclusion – The practice–sometimes called “full inclusion”–of educating children with disabilities alongside their non- disabled peers, often in a regular classroom in their neighborhood school. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that disabled children be educated in the “least restrictive environment” possible.

independent schools – A private or nonpublic school that is not part of a school system. An independent school is governed by a board of trustees instead of by the state board of education. It is funded by tuition and private donations and grants. The school must hold a nonprofit status and be accredited by an approved state or regional association. It must also be nondiscriminatory, and it can be either religious or non-religious.

the Internet – A widely used worldwide public computer network, initially developed by the U.S. military, that links smaller computer networks and allows users on different computer systems to communicate with one another on a global scale.

Internship – Students work in an environment where they perform a variety of tasks for a specific occupation. Internships are usually short-term, and they can be paid or unpaid.

I.Q. – Shorthand for “intelligence quotient,” which is a person’s purported mental capacity. IQ tests have become increasingly controversial because critics claim they measure only a narrow band of intellectual strengths, primarily “school smarts.” Others claim the tests are biased against members of some minority groups.


job shadowing – Students accompany an employee at the workplace, observing and learning about various tasks associated with an occupation.

job rotation – Students work within one industry or company in a range of occupations requiring different skills. Rotation allows students to experience the variety of jobs in one field.


Kentucky Education Reform Act – The nation’s most sweeping state school-reform law. Passed by the Kentucky General Assembly in 1990, it enacted new curriculum, governance, finance, and technology initiatives. The law grew out of a 1989 state supreme court decision.


learning disabilities – Encompasses a wide variety of learning difficulties; the criteria for the label varies from state to state. In general, a learning disability describes a discrepancy between a child’s intelligence and academic achievement. Some children have learning disabilities only in specific areas, such as reading or math.

LEP students – Students who speak a language other than English. They are either immigrants or children born in the United States. Each state has a different way of ascertaining whether a child is limited-English-proficient. Usually such students receive bilingual-education or English-as-a-second-language services.


magnet schools – A school that places special emphasis on academic achievement or on a particular field such as science, designed to attract students from elsewhere in the school district.

master teachers – Experienced teachers who work with newer teachers or with teachers who are having trouble in the classroom to help them become more effective teachers.

mentoring – A professional works closely with a student, instructing and motivating him or her, in consultation with the teacher.

merit pay – Any of a number of plans to pay teachers on the basis of their demonstrated competence in teaching. The pay plans are controversial because it is difficult to objectively identify good teaching, and many argue that such plans would be little more than popularity contests.

migrant education – Education programs established mainly to meet the needs of children of farm laborers, who often face such challenges as poverty, poor health care, and the readjustments of moving often from school to school.

multicultural education – An educational philosophy and curriculum that looks beyond curricula from the white Western European tradition. Some multicultural education models highlight subjects from diverse cultural, ethnic, racial, and gender perspectives. Others represent an immersion in one culture, ethnicity, or race.

multimedia – Software that combines text, sound, video, animation, and graphics into a single presentation. The multimedia format is frequently used in ‘edutainment’ software. An example of multimedia would be an electronic encyclopedia.


outcomes-based education – An education theory that guides curriculum by setting goals for students to accomplish. Outcomes-based education focuses more on these goals, or outcomes, than on “inputs,” or subject units. This theory has drawn intense criticism from parent groups who fear that, by focusing on outcomes, schools are inflicting values onto students.


parochial schools – A school that is church-related, most commonly to the Roman Catholic Church but also to other Protestant denominations. Hebrew day schools can also be termed “parochial.”

pay equity – Paying teachers based on a single-salary schedule that pays men and women and elementary and secondary teachers the same. Teachers are paid according to how many years they have been teaching and how many educational credits or degrees they have accumulated.

performance-based assessment – Requires students to perform hands-on tasks, such as writing an essay or conducting a science experiment. Such assessments are becoming increasingly common as alternatives to multiple-choice, machine-scored tests. Also known as authentic assessment.

phonics – An instructional strategy used to teach letter-sound relationships to beginning readers by having them “sound out” words.

portfolio – A systematic and organized collection of a student’s work throughout a course or class year. It measures the student’s knowledge and skills and often includes some form of self-reflection by the student.

private school – An independent school that is controlled by an individual or agency other than the state or district. It is usually supported by private funds and is not controlled by publicly elected or appointed officials.

privatization – Transfer of the management of public schools to private or for-profit education organizations. Privatization emphasizes typical business-oriented concepts such as customer satisfaction and managerial autonomy in running schools.

public engagement – The involvement of parents, community members, and taxpayers in the improvement of schooling and efforts to reform schools. The concern over public engagement, or the lack of it, stems from the larger worry that Americans are becoming apathetic about civic life and estranged from one another.


reform networks – An association of educators, schools, or districts joined together to provide mutual support as they work on common plans for improving education.

remedial education – Instruction that seeks to bring students deficient in basic skills up to standard levels in essential subjects such as writing, reading, and math.

report cards – The periodic evaluations of a student’s academic progress, usually sent home to parents. Report cards of a school’s performance require districts to inform the public about schools’ performances by means of student test scores and other measures.


SATs – The SAT is a standardized test, usually taken by college-bound students. The SAT I: Reasoning Test is a test of verbal and mathematical reasoning ability. It is designed to predict who will do well in college. The SAT II: Subject Test, formerly known as Achievement Tests, are tests of current ability and knowledge in high school subject areas such as English and biology.

school-based management – The shift of decision-making authority from school districts to individual schools. Such proposals vary, but they usually give control of a school’s operation to a school council composed of parents, teachers, and local administrators.

school choice – Any proposal that allows children to attend schools outside their local district boundaries. Such schools may be public institutions other than that school that is assigned in their district or they may be private and/or religious schools. Often these proposals include public funding for all or some of the tuition costs.

school-community links – Efforts by schools to reach out to parents, families, community leaders, and human-services professionals to improve community life and address social issues that impede learning. Examples range from making school space available for before- and after-school programs to connecting a family to services in the community to planning better long-range coordination of services.

school-community services – Activities offered on or near school sites to benefit families and other neighborhood residents. Such activities include child care, adult education, recreation, counseling, health screening, mentoring, tutoring, conflict resolution, parent education, job training, cultural and arts programs, or drop-in centers for teenagers.

school reform – A generic term encompassing all kinds of efforts that are taking place to improve schools. Reform efforts focus on all aspects of schooling, from how schools are governed to what curriculum is taught in the classroom.

school-to-work transition – Any of a host of programs from on-the-job training to apprenticeships to cooperative agreements between high schools and community colleges designed to prepare students not bound for college to enter the job market.

service learning – Programs that incorporating citizenship values into education by requiring students to perform community service. In some districts, community service is a mandatory requirement for graduation.

sexual harassment – Unwelcome written or verbal comments or physical gestures or actions of a sexual nature.

site-based management – The shift of decision-making authority from centralized bureaucracies to local individual establishments. Such proposals vary, but they usually give control of an organization’s operation to local administrators.

special education – Programs designed to serve children with mental and physical disabilities. Such children are entitled to individualized education plans that spell out the services needed to reach their educational goals, ranging from speech therapy to math tutoring. Traditionally, special education has taken place in separate classrooms. Increasingly, the services may also be offered in regular schools and classrooms.

Standards – Subject-matter benchmarks to measure students’ academic achievement. Curriculum standards drive what students learn in the classroom. Most agree that public schools’ academic standards need to be raised. However, there is national debate over how to implement such standards–how prescriptive they should be, and whether they should be national or local, voluntary or mandated.


teacher certification – A process through which teachers become recognized by the state as expert teachers, implying that a teacher has mastered the complex art of teaching. This is distinguished from a “licensed” teacher, one who practices teaching but is not considered an expert.

teacher licensing – The process by which teachers receive state permission to teach. States typically have such minimum requirements such as the completion of certain coursework and experience as a student teacher. Some states, faced with shortages of teachers in particular areas, grant teachers emergency licenses and allow them to take required courses while they are full-time teachers.

Total Quality Management (TQM) – A school-management concept adopted from the business world with a strong focus on client satisfaction and decision-making techniques that encourage workers to seek continual improvement in the organization.


vocational education – Instruction that prepares a student for employment immediately after the completion of high school. Although often thought of in terms of auto-shop or carpentry courses, such programs frequently also include a strong academic component and teach such cutting-edge skills as computer-aided design.

voucher – A document, usually issued by the state, that can be used by parents to pay tuition at an out-of-district public school, a private school, and/or a religious school. The term is also used more broadly to describe school-choice proposals in which states would help pay tuition for children attending private or religious schools.


whole language – A philosophy and instructional strategy that emphasizes reading for meaning and in context. Although teachers may give phonics lessons to individual students as needed, the emphasis is on teaching students to look at the wholeness of words and text.

World Wide Web – The World Wide Web, commonly known as the Web, is an information system where documents and other web resources are identified by Uniform Resource Locators, which may be interlinked by hypertext, and are accessible over the Internet.


year-round scheduling – A modified school calendar that offers short breaks throughout the year, rather than the traditional summer vacation. The calendars vary as do the reasons for switching to a year-round schedule. Some schools stagger the schedules to relieve crowding. Others think the three-month break allows students to forget much of the material covered in the previous year.

youth apprenticeship – Students prepare for an entry-level job through a combination of workplace learning and academic work. Apprenticeships can either be paid or unpaid.

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