Steve Johnson left a comment a few days ago on Doug Johnson's blog post about this "War on Words" series I am doing that addresses a term I have been meaning to get to on this list but wasn't quite sure how to frame it. Steve writes:
I'll offer another that I think has been twisted beyond recognition lately: achievement. Used to be that achievement meant you actually....achieved something.Steve's comment got me reflecting on just what has become of the term "Achievement" and how it might have come to change meaning. When I was growing up an achievement was something that was real special. The term was reserved for attaining high levels of something. Becoming an Eagle Scout was a real achievement, getting into your first choice college was a real achievement, winning the spelling bee was a real achievement (ok, this one is questionable), building your own house or rebuilding an engine for a classic car was a real achievement, performing a challenging piece of music in front of a large audience was a real achievement, etc. But today in education the term is most commonly used to describe scores on basic skills tests. "Student achievement" has become synonymous with mastering basic proficiencies.
Unlike the other terms I've addressed in this series so far whose meanings were changed through repetitive misuse over time I think I might be able to pinpoint precisely where this one's meaning was degraded. Now, this is just a hypothesis and I really have not researched this so please do not take this as fact but just an idea to consider. To pinpoint just where this term lost it's value we have to understand it's conceptual relationship to another term that has become equally problematic: "Accomplishment."
The verb forms of these two words are what have always separated them conceptually. To accomplish something is to finish it and to achieve something is to reach a certain rank in doing so. But, the noun forms have always been nearly identical. "Achievement" and "Accomplishment" are extremely closely related ideas. They both describe what a person has done. Therefore, to do something that defaces the meaning of one term could easily have a residual effect on the other.
When I was in high school, college, and the first few years of my teaching career I don't remember "Student Achievement" as having the same association with basic skills tests as it does today. It really has only been sometime within this past decade that this has happened. And, what I propose is that this deflation occurred single-handedly in an event not at all related to educational discourse and by a prominent U.S. figure who was famous for his butchering of the English language. When George W. Bush landed on that air craft carrier flying the banner "Mission Accomplished" declaring the end of major operations in a war that was waged arguably for reasons stemming from a poor "data-driven decision," and leaving U.S. troops to fight for many years afterwords the same battle that was implied was "Accomplished" it degraded the term forever. Now anything could be legitimately called an accomplishment, even things that didn't end well.
It was around that same time that I started hearing the term "Student Achievement" to refer to the accomplishment of the mastery of basic skills. Interesting, W. was also the president who made famous the phrase, "soft bigotry of low expectations." Draw your own conclusions.
This post is ninth in my "war on words" series. Other terms in this series are: "best practices," "child-centered," "value added," accountability, "data-driven decisions," "learning objectives," "21st Century," and "personalized learning."