The Glossary of Education Reform was created to help journalists, parents, and community members—anyone with an interest or investment in our public schools—understand some of the major reform concepts being discussed by educators, researchers, and policy makers. In a word, we believe that strong schools, great journalism, and an informed electorate are essential to any well-functioning democracy. For this reason, educators are encouraged to use the glossary to build a stronger understanding of school-improvement strategies in their communities.

The glossary describes widely used school-improvement terms, concepts, and strategies. It currently features more than 500 terms and 150 in-depth entries on K–12 public education and education reform in the United States. Each entry includes a general definition of the term, a discussion about how the concept or strategy intersects with efforts to improve school performance or student achievement, and an overview of related debates, including the major arguments for or against particular reforms. The glossary is designed to be a neutral observer, and the writers and editors worked to create entries that are factual, objective, and impartial.

Why Journalists Should Use the Glossary

Over the past decade, upheavals throughout the news industry have led to significantly downsized newsrooms and the elimination of many full-time education-reporting positions. In fact, many local and regional newspapers no longer have on-staff journalists solely dedicated to education reporting. These cutbacks and realignments have, in some cases, affected the depth and frequency of education reporting, particularly at the state and local levels.

For new and reassigned journalists, the education beat poses a variety of challenges:

  • Educators tend to use a lot of convoluted jargon that’s tricky to decipher.
  • Teaching techniques that appear simple on the surface may actually be highly sophisticated and require years of intensive study and practice to master.
  • The reform strategies used in public schools may carry the same name, but they may differ dramatically in design, execution, and effectiveness from school to school.
  • A reform that succeeds in one state, school, or district may fail in another—and for a multiplicity of complex reasons that can be difficult to untangle.
  • Most American adults have had a first-hand experience with public schools, but those experiences may be decades old—and yet those experiences often inform their opinion of new or more innovative approaches to schooling.
  • Communities tend to be deeply invested in their local public schools, and consequently emotions may run high, debates can become contentious, and facts can easily become obscured.
  • And the list could go on and on.

Understanding the complexity of the public-education system, the rationale and motivations driving reforms, or the countless ways in which new education strategies may be deployed, typically requires years of study and first-hand experience in schools. And yet journalists, by nature of the job, are often thrown into this cultural crucible with little assistance and unforgiving deadlines. Our hope is that this resource will, in some small way, accelerate the learning curve for new and reassigned journalists, while also helping editors, reporters, citizen journalists, bloggers, and other media professionals navigate some of the thornier issues in education reform and get their job done more efficiently and effectively.

Finally, the journalism profession—and particularly the kind of substantive, thoughtful, critically important investigative reporting that keeps everyone honest—is, like our system of public education, one of the foundations of American society. The Glossary of Education Reform is our way of supporting the invaluable role that journalists play in our country’s ongoing discussions and debates about the future of public education. Because all of us, every American, need great journalists and informed reporting as much as we need great teachers and informed citizens.

What this Glossary Is—And What It Is Not

The Glossary of Education Reform is a free, online resource that explicates and contextualizes major terms, concepts, and strategies in public-education reform. The glossary is designed to give journalists, parents, and the public an accessible, easily navigated, go-to reference for accurate, factual, and objective information on major education-reform issues in the United States. It is also a work in progress that we will be expanding, improving, and refining it over time.

Unlike some online resources that define education terminology and jargon, the glossary is not a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or even a “glossary” in the traditional sense. While this resource goes much deeper than a one- or two-sentence definition, a broad swath of potential material (described in more detail below) has been intentionally excluded. Our goal is fill a gap in the existing resources available to journalists and the public, but we are not trying to explain everything related to education or reproduce something that’s already been done well by someone else. Our goal is to provide information that is useful and actionable, not exhaustive.

While you will find detailed entries and short essays on a wide variety of educational concepts and terms, the glossary, as its title suggests, has a specific focus: education reform. While shorter definitions of common education terms can be found throughout the site, the majority of entries endeavor to explain, and to some degree map out, the following:

  • The intersections of reform conversations, thinking, and strategies. All entries begin with a brief technical definition—what the term means and how it generally works in our education system or public schools. But most entries include a section specifically devoted to reform, broadly defined—i.e., how the concept or strategy intersects with efforts to improve public-school performance, teaching quality, or education results for students. These sections (under the heading of Reform) describe some of the more important issues, ideas, and implications that journalists and the public will want to be aware of and informed about. It’s complex terrain, of course, and whenever possible we have linked descriptions to other entries and included related terms, synonyms, and abbreviations. It’s likely that many important connections have been overlooked, which is why we intend to identify and address critical omissions over time—hopefully with help from the journalists, academics, teachers, education leaders, and others who have used the glossary, found it to be valuable, and decided to submit their feedback.
  • The nuances of reform implementation in schools and classrooms. While there are many resources devoted to explaining state and federal education policies, for example, there are few “one-stop” resources where journalists and the public can find—in plain English—descriptions of how a particular reform strategy or instructional technique works in schools. That is, what principals, teachers, and other staff members actually do on a daily basis, what the rationales are behind their methods, and what might distinguish a newer “reform” from a more “traditional” approach to schooling. Again, this is complex terrain, and important or relevant pedagogical nuances may not appear in an entry.
  • Relevant debates or criticism. If applicable, entries include discussions of ongoing debates related to specific reform theories and strategies (these sections can be found under the heading of Debate). These discussions are intended to point out potentially contentious issues and equip journalists and the public with a brief overview of the major representative arguments for or against a particular reform strategy, model, or theory of action—what the advocates or critics may be saying. The glossary strives to be a neutral observer, and our entries do not take a position on any issue or advocate for any particular reform. We are presenting the debate, but it’s up to journalists, parents, and others to ask the tough questions and do the necessary research.

What You Will Not Find in this Glossary

You will not find detailed entries on the following broad content categories in this resource:

  • Federal or state education policies and legal decisions
  • Proprietary or branded reform models
  • Private organizations, institutions, and schools
  • Highly localized educational terms, strategies, concepts, and reforms
  • Higher education reforms

While some entries may include brief discussions of federal or state policies, typically in the form of representative examples, and they may mention proprietary reform models, specific products, private organizations, or intersections with higher education, these general topics are not defined and described in stand-alone entries. Several reasons contributed to this decision:

  • A large number of organizations and publications have devoted significant resources and page space to explaining laws, regulations, and policies intended to reform the public education system. Consequently, information and resources on federal and state education policy are relatively abundant and accessible. And given that policies are continually changing in small ways and large, and that their implications are often highly localized, the monitoring requirements alone simply exceed both our expertise and our resources.
  • Proprietary reform models, as well as the organizations and institutions operating in the field of education reform, are simply too numerous to present usefully in this resource. The curatorial and lexicographical complications entailed in selecting, researching, defining, and updating entries on the thousands of reform models and organizations operating in the United States make their inclusion, quite simply, unfeasible. For this reason, we have focused on more universal concepts and general strategies. A few exceptions may be included in the glossary due to their widespread use in American public schools.
  • While private schools are a vital part of the American education system, they are not typically the object of reform efforts by policy makers, government agencies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations. The majority of news reporting and public dialogue on school reform has been, and will almost certainly continue to be, focused on the public education system, which includes publicly financed but privately operated charter schools.
  • Perhaps obviously, highly localized education terms, strategies, concepts, and reforms—what specific districts or schools may be doing, and the terminology they use to describe it—are simply too numerous and too changeable to be included in this resource.
  • While higher education is indeed a critical topic of interest to journalists, parents, and the American public, it is not the focus of this resource. The inclusion of higher education terms and reforms may be considered in future expansions of the glossary.

In addition to the broad content categories listed above, you will not find detailed discussions of the following topics in this resource:

  • Education research. The field of education research is vast, complex, and bewildering, and the annual output of its academics and researchers is prodigious. For this reason, the inclusion of education research in this resource would be impracticable and unworkable: What research do we include? What do we exclude? How do we navigate the endlessly convoluted nuances of validity, comparability, and conflicted findings? How do we maintain impartiality? There are no easy answers to these questions. Consequently, our entries are not accompanied by lengthy bibliographies or citation lists, and they are not intended to confirm or disprove the effectiveness of any particular reform. We strongly encourage journalists, parent, and community members to review the academic literature or interview researchers, but educational research and its many findings are simply beyond the scope of this resource. A few exceptions—such as growth mindset and stereotype threat—do include references to researchers and their work, mainly because the concepts cannot be accurately explained without reference to the individuals who formulated them.
  • Historical background. While some discussions of historical background have been included in this resource—mainly when historical context is necessary to understanding the concept, as in the Carnegie unit entry, for example—historical events and developments are not the focus of the glossary, just as they are not typically a focus in public discussions and news coverage about education reform. For better or for worse, few contemporary reporters reference John Dewey  in a story about a new project-based-learning initiative in a local school or the Committee of Ten when writing about the kinds of things students should be expected to learn in today’s high schools. While the historical origins of modern education reforms are a vitally important and highly worthwhile topic of study, and we heartily encourage journalists and the public to dive into the pursuit, charting the history of modern reforms is beyond the scope of this resource. If you are interested in the historical origins of modern reforms, we recommend the Encyclopedia of Education Reform and Dissent.
  • Perishable data. As many people know, the education field is awash in data—from graduation rates and standardized-test scores to the countless independent and governmental reports and statistical comparisons. The sheer number of numbers being compiled every year presents a significant obstacle for anyone trying to understand the ecosystem of education reform by wading through its rivers of data. Education data are also in a near constant state of fluctuation and churn, and it can be a year—or two or three—outdated by the time a given data set is finally published. In addition, it’s often very difficult to determine precisely how some numbers were calculated, and whether those calculations are objective and accurate or agenda-driven and misleading—as is the case with some “reports” that appear designed to confirm preexisting assumptions or ideological arguments. Consequently, you will not find many numbers in our entries—they are simply too perishable to maintain and, in some cases, too fraught to handle judiciously without recourse to lengthy disquisitions and disclaimers.

Congratulations on making it through this lengthy introduction! We hope you enjoy the Glossary of Education Reform.

Who We Are

The Glossary of Education Reform is a service of the Great Schools Partnership, a nonprofit school-support organization based in Portland, Maine. It is produced in collaboration with the Education Writers Association, a national professional organization for journalists and media professionals specializing in education, and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the largest philanthropy in New England focused exclusively on education.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons License
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

All entries on the Glossary of Education Reform are published under the above Creative Commons license, which lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and license their new creations under the identical terms.

In other words, you can republish or repurpose our content if you (1) credit the Glossary and Great Schools Partnership as the original author of the content; (2) the republished or repurposed content cannot be sold or used commercially in any way; and (3) modifications to the content are allowed, but all modified content must also carry a Creative Commons license so that others can republish and repurpose it. That’s right: Go ahead and use our content if it helps you out!

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Defining “Reform”
(and Disclaimer)

Undoubtedly, the term “reform” is as overused in public conversations and news stories about education as it is in coverage of elections, health care, immigration, and taxes. The creators of this resource are not big fans of the term. That said, the term’s very overuse renders it more or less the dominant word used in reference to policies, programs, and other efforts being made to improve public schools. In this resource, the word “reform” is used (albeit reluctantly) in its broadest possible sense: to refer to anything that politicians, policy makers, government agencies, school leaders, teachers, or other educational reformers, experts, and specialists may be doing—either effectively or ineffectively—to improve public school performance, teaching effectiveness, or educational results for students. School improvement, school redesign, educational transformation—there are many alternative terms that are synonymous to varying degrees. For the time being, though, it appears we are stuck with reform. We decided to make peace with it and just move on.