“Underperforming” semantics by the Board of Education

“Underperforming” semantics by the Board of Education

What’s more important? That we not feel bad about our failure or that we stop failing? In politically correct Massachusetts, it’s the former. The state Board of Education has decided that it will no longer use the words “failing” or even “underperforming” to describe schools that are failing. (Isn’t “underperforming” already a euphemism?)

To soothe the bruised egos of educators and children in lackluster schools, Massachusetts officials are now pushing for kinder, gentler euphemisms for failure.

Instead of calling these schools “underperforming,” the Board of Education is considering labeling them as “Commonwealth priority,” to avoid poisoning teacher and student morale.

Schools in the direst straits, now known as “chronically underperforming,” would get the more urgent but still vague label of “priority one.”

The board has spent parts of more than three meetings in recent months debating the linguistic merits and tone set by the terms after a handful of superintendents from across the state complained that the label underperforming unfairly casts blame on educators, hinders the recruitment of talented teachers, and erodes students’ self-esteem.

Rather than addressing the actual problem—why are schools and students failing?—they’ve spent three meetings discussing what to call it. And in the end, whether you call it “failing”, “underperforming”, or “Commonwealth priority” (there’s Orwellian newspeak if I’ve ever seen it), those who are indeed failing know that they’re really failing.

This is bureaucratic cowardice that fails to address the real issues—incompetent educators, unsupportive parents, students who need extra time or attention—but instead pretends that everything is hunky-dory and would anyone like more taxpayer-funded grants for field trips and computers and Earth Day programs?

Ironically, it’s the token student on the Board of Education who cuts through the baloney:

Zachary Tsetsos, a senior at Oxford High School and the only student on the board, said he finds the debate frivolous.

“Why are we spending time on this?,” said the 17-year-old. “I don’t want to tiptoe around the issue. I’m not concerned about what title we give these schools. Let’s work on fixing them.”

Or John Silber, former president of Boston University, former head of the Board of Education, and former gubernatorial candidate:

“Changing the name doesn’t change the reality. I think Shakespeare had a good line: ‘A rose by another name would smell as sweet.’ A skunk by any other name would stink.”


“Now here they have schools that are not doing adequately, so they’re changing the name?” he said with dismay. “Why don’t we call them special schools?”


Reminds me of the dialogue from “The Incredibles”, where Elastigirl tells her son, Dash, “Every child is special.” To which he replies, “If everyone is special, then NO ONE is special.” In other words, your words and your reality don’t match up.