Schools and school districts tend to have their own language – and usually it’s clunky and convoluted.
To its credit, San Diego Unified seems to recognize this and tries to translate its ideas into something close to English so that when officials talk about them at public meetings, everyone is on the same page.
That’s the idea, at least. Most of the time, the very aids meant to explain government jargon to the public only make things more confusing.
I consider myself something of a connoisseur of terrible government charts. And, as such, San Diego Unified has a tremendous amount to offer.
There’s no idea too straightforward that district officials can’t muddy, no word or phrase they can’t cloak in jargon, no idea they can’t convolute.
Ideally, a good chart is able to crystallize important points. It drives home a message in a clear, accessible way. Speakers can always backfill with nuance and context. But good charts should be understandable as standalone images.
And yet so often, governments trying to clarify their policies or ideas only make things muddier. That could look like 92 concepts packed into a single chart, unexplained acronyms or dense technical language. San Diego Unified excels in these areas.
Here are three charts that are particularly terrible – or wonderful, depending on how you look at it.
Let’s first take a trip back to spring 2014, when the district had to cope with a forecasted $115 million budget shortfall for the upcoming year.
School board members held a meeting. You’ll probably believe what happened next.
Former VOSD editor Andy Donohue captured the confusion succinctly: “Help, our small nation of Budget is being invaded by the Unholy Alliance of Government Jargon!”
You might also envision a blue budget egg, about to be fertilized by a government jargon-sperm. One thing you probably won’t imagine, however, is a clear picture of the district’s budget process.
Perhaps no San Diego Unified chart embodies government-ugly as well as one Joe Fulcher, a former senior-level manager, shared during a presentation about the district’s new approach to school discipline:
I don’t even know where to start. Incomprehensible acronyms. WORDS WEIRDLY CAPITALIZED. This chart has it all. Just remarkable work. Third place, no question.
Year after year, English-learners make up an outsize segment of the district’s lowest-performing students. And, year after year, the district says English-learners are to be the focus of major, strategic efforts to close the achievement gap.
So it felt totally appropriate the night Superintendent Cindy Marten presented a new plan to help English-learners – because, the year before, she made a decision that drastically cut the number of teachers who serve them – and the strategies were confusing and convoluted.
One chart shared during a presentation summed up the feeling:
So many ideas going in all directions, competing for air, canceling one another out. It’s a cacophony of eduspeak.
… And the Winner
I’ve saved the worst for last.
First place goes to a chart shared just this week during a conversation about how the district can better engage families.
At the close of a robust, jargon-heavy discussion about how parent engagement raises student achievement, staff members closed with this chart.
Allison Rowland, who presented work from the district’s Parent Outreach and Engagement Office, explained the metaphor as such:
“So I want to just dispel one more notion, and I really like this metaphor. Because we’re talking about families supporting student learning, we think that, ‘oh, they need to become teachers,’ or ‘teachers need to become families,’ or something like that, but really it’s that we’re all on the same team, we just have different roles. Like the offense. And defense. On a football team.
They’re all playing to win, but they have very different roles, which I don’t really understand. But anyway, they have different roles.”
The chart is a worthy effort. Staff members get points for having all positions accurately labeled. As you can see, they went with a standard I-formation on offense, which is nothing fancy, but ought to do the job.
The thing is, though, these players are actually on opposing teams. They’re on opposite sides of the ball. They have different-colored uniforms and everything.
The only way the metaphor could work is if they’re depicting a practice, or a scrimmage situation. And a practice really wouldn’t do justice to the importance of the work under way. This is game time, folks. The ball is live.
Furthermore, this isn’t even really a metaphor. It just says “quarterback.” There’s no indication whether that means a mom, a teacher, a student or someone else. Who’s the running back in this situation? And who’s going to be the lineman, anyway? Somebody has to.
The context in which this chart was shared also helps catapult it to the top of the list.
District staff presented all of these charts at school board meetings, which are monotone and aggressively boring, but give parents at least one chance each month to hear how district officials are leading 130,000 students. A bad chart in this setting is noteworthy by itself.
But officials presented this chart during a conversation about how to remove barriers that keep families and community members at a distance.
And they’re overlooking the fact that jargon-laden speech unintentionally creates a significant barrier to understanding and engagement.