Guide to Education Terminology

educationEditor’s note: Ever feel like you need a translator at your parent-teacher conferences? Ever pull out a dictionary when reading the latest education news? It seems our children’s schools have a language all their own, and cracking the code can help you keep up with what is going on at your child’s campus. Here’s a helpful sampling from the Education Week Guide to K-12 Terminology (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

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, but debate over the fairness and effectiveness of ability grouping, also known as tracking, can be intense. The terms have been used to describe a wide array of practices, ranging from the segregation of black children at an early age, based on unfairly administered intelligence tests, to the placement of gifted and talented children from various backgrounds in advanced courses designed to challenge them.

Moving students through the traditional curriculum at rates faster than the typical pace, sometimes used with students deemed “gifted.” BENCHMARKING The practice of measuring performance against a set standard; generally, in education, comparisons are based on standardized test scores. Benchmarks can help identify best practices that set the performance of one school ahead of another lower-performing school with a similar student body. In recent years, international benchmarking has become prominent as advocates seek comparisons of the achievement of American children with their peers in other countries and use those results – which often find Americans behind their peers in other developed nations – to press for change in U.S. schools.


Block scheduling increases the length of the traditional class period; it carves out more time for instruction by reducing the amount of time students spend getting from one class to another as well as the amount of time teachers spend on taking attendance and other administrative matters. Block schedules can follow a variety of patterns, including 4x4 (students take four 90- minute classes a day and complete them in a semester rather than a full year), A/B (each semester students take eight 90-minute classes, but classes meet every other day, four on day A and four on day B), and 75-15 (students take four classes for a 75-day fall term, followed by a 15-day intersession for enrichment activities or remedial work, and the pattern repeats in the spring).

Grouping gifted students together within an otherwise heterogeneous class headed by a teacher who has skills and interest in working with highachieving learners.


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

The streamlining of material for gifted students. The process also involves documenting student proficiency, setting goals, and enumerating specific enrichment activities geared to the students involved. The curriculum compacting practice was developed by Joseph Renzulli and Linda Smith in 1978.

Teaching students at different levels of skill and knowledge in the same classroom by means of strategies such as giving them different work, varying the type of questions asked of them, and putting them in groups that change as frequently as daily.

“Direct Instruction” – with its first letters capitalized – is the proper name of a widely used skills-based instruction program developed in the 1960s by Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley Becker. It involves carefully scripted lesson plans and spans a wide range of subjects and grade levels. Direct Instruction began as a reading and mathematics program for children in kindergarten through third grade; it was known then as DISTAR, or Direct Instructional System for Teaching and Remediation. The Direct Instruction program has been criticized by many educators and academics for its lockstep structure.

The controversial practice – sometimes called “full inclusion” – of educating children with disabilities alongside their nondisabled 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. The practice was previously known as “mainstreaming.” LOOPING A practice in which teachers work with the same group of students for more than one year. Proponents say looping – which is also called teacher-student progression and multiyear grouping – helps build stronger relationships between students and teachers and cuts down on time needed for back-to-school reviews at the start of the school year.


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 district.


An assessment tool that offers objective standards for gauging subjective work, such as student essays. Critics question whether these standards can effectively gauge such skills as a child’s ability to write well.

A metaphor used to describe the type of support that teachers (and, in some cases, peers) offer students as they are learning a new concept. Much like a physical scaffold that holds workers temporarily while they tackle a project, teacher scaffolding or support is there for individual students while they are mastering an idea; it can then be removed or reconfigured to help with other learning.The practice of scaffolding draws on developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s ideas on children’s potential for learning and their need for help from other, more skilled individuals to learn new skills.

Practice of moving a student through instruction in less time than is normal (for example, completing a one-year course in one semester, or three years of middle school in two). Unlike curriculum compacting, telescoping always results in students advancing to a higher grade level.