Glossary of Education Terms


2:00 to 6:00 After-School Initiative
A plan Boston Mayor Menino launched in his 1998 inaugural address. The mission is to support the expansion of high quality after-school programming across the city, providing new learning and development opportunities for children.

Action for Boston Community Development. The largest independent, private, non-profit human services agency in New England, assisting over 100,000 low-income individuals and families annually. ABCD promotes self-help and provides practical programs that emphasize education and skilled job-training.

ability grouping
see tracking.

The process by which an organization, usually the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), sanctions teacher-education programs. The council gives certain programs — about 500 of the some 1,300 that prepare teachers — its seal of approval for quality. States also approve teacher-education programs by issuing teaching licenses to their graduates.

Policies that hold districts, schools, or students responsible for their performance. School and district accountability often means rating schools or districts according to student performance, reporting on school or district performance, and rewarding and punishing schools or districts based on improvement over time. Student accountability refers to holding students responsible for their own performance by requiring them to pass a test to be promoted or to graduate.

Advanced Placement
Courses administered by the College Board that high school students can take to earn college credit. Students must master a higher level of coursework and pass a written test.

alternative assessment
Any form of gauging students' knowledge other than conventional standardized tests. Alternative assessments include performance-based assessments, portfolios, and other means.

alternative schools
Public schools that are set up by states or school districts to serve students who are failing in traditional public schools. Alternative schools typically attract students with learning disabilities or behavioral problems, and offer them a chance to achieve in a different environment. Such schools often have flexible schedules, smaller teacher-student ratios, and modified curricula.

Aprenda 2
A norm-referenced achievement test specifically designed for students in bilingual programs. This test is in Spanish only; it is not translated into English.

An exercise, e.g., a written test, portfolio, performance, or experiment, that aims to measure a student's knowledge or skill in a given subject.

After-School and Out of School Time

at risk
Describes students with socioeconomic hardships, such as poverty or teen pregnancy, which could place them at an academic or social disadvantage. These students are considered "at risk" of failing or dropping out.

attention-deficit disorder (ADD)
A condition characterized by the inability to concentrate. Between three and ten percent of U.S. school-age children are thought to have ADD. Many of these children qualify for special-education services. Children with ADD who are also hyperactive or impulsive are often labeled ADHD, for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

A neurological disorder that usually appears during the first three years of life. People with autism have problems with verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction. The disorder makes it difficult to relate to others and to the outside world.

basal readers
Elementary school books that incorporate simple stories and practice exercises to reinforce what students are learning.

basic skills
The traditional building blocks of a curriculum that are most commonly associated with explicit instruction in early elementary language arts and mathematics. Basic skills include teaching the letters of the alphabet, how to sound out words, spelling, grammar, counting, adding, subtracting, and multiplying.

A non-profit committed to improving educational opportunities for urban children of color. In Boston, B.E.L.L. offers an after school tutoring and mentoring program, a six-week academic summer camp, and a book scholarship given to tutors and tutees of B.E.L.L. educational programs.

bilingual education

An education program for non-native English speakers. Children spend part of the school day receiving instruction in their native language, with the goal of moving them into mainstream English classes, normally within two or three years.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that banned racially segregated schools, stating that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The decision led to widespread busing and desegregation.

Busing students to schools where their attendance creates greater racial integration.


character education
Specific instruction in basic morals or virtues, as opposed to working these values into every lesson.

charter schools
Schools that receive public funding but operate outside of the traditional public school system. They are run by groups such as teachers, parents, or foundations. Charter schools are free of many district regulations and are often tailored to community needs.

City Roots
A free program for Boston youth to get help earning a G.E.D.

Citywide Learning Standards
Goals that lay out what every child in the Boston public school system should know and be able to do in each subject and grade level. Students take Citywide Tests in grades 6, 7, and 9.

The teaching of the roles and responsibilities of citizens and their governments.

cognitive science
The study of how, rather than what, people learn. Teachers using this approach build on students' outside knowledge and experience and rely less on rote memorization.

collaborative learning or cooperative learning
A teaching method in which students of varying abilities and interests work together in small groups on a specific task or project. Students complete assignments together and receive a common grade.

College Board (or College Entrance Examination Board)
A nonprofit organization that is composed of colleges, universities, and other agencies and associations that help students move into higher education. Programs administered by the College Board include the SAT and Advanced Placement.

An approach to teaching based on the idea that learning is the result of "mental construction." That is, students learn by fitting new information together with what they already know. Constructivists believe that learning is affected by the context in which an idea is taught as well as by students' beliefs and attitudes. These theorists dismiss the idea that students learn by absorbing information through lectures or repeated rote practice.

core academics
The required subjects in middle and high schools, usually English, history (social studies), math, and science.

Creationism is the product of a literal interpretation of the Biblical story of Genesis. It holds that God created the world in a single act approximately 6,000 years ago — and that human beings, animals, and other forms of life exist today much as they did then. To many creationists, the theory of evolution is heresy. They argue that fossil records and other scientific evidence of evolution are either false or were themselves created by God.

critical thinking
The mental process of acquiring information, then evaluating it to reach a logical conclusion or answer. Increasingly, educators believe that schools should focus more on critical thinking and less on memorization of facts.

The subject matter that teachers and students cover in class. (Plural curricula.)

curriculum frameworks
Describe what should be taught in order for students to acquire certain skills.


In education, the term is most frequently used to describe the transfer of school policymaking authority from the federal to the state level, or the transfer of decision-making authority from the state level to districts or schools.

Deferred admission
A college admissions term that means you decide to postpone your admission, typically for a semester or a year. Most students use the interim to travel, volunteer, or work.

Plans aimed at reducing racial segregation in schools and improving racial balance.

digital divide
The "digital divide," was first coined by the U.S. Department of Commerce report Falling Through the Net, and described the gap between the technological haves and have-nots. More recently, rather than referring to technology inequities, the digital divide denotes the disparity in how technology is used in schools.

distance learning
The use of telecommunications technologies, including satellites, telephones and cable-television systems, to broadcast instruction from one central site to one or more remote locations. Typically, a television image of a teacher is broadcast to students in remote locations. This may also be done using interactive videoconferencing. School districts frequently use distance learning so one teacher can teach to students in more than one school at once. Rural districts often rely on distance learning.

Department of Education (usually refers to a state's department of education).

drug-free school zones
In response to public concern over an increase in illegal drug use during the 1980s, the U.S. Congress and many state legislatures passed laws designating areas around schools as drug-free zones. Persons caught possessing illegal drugs in these areas are subject to increased penalties under the law. The actual area of the zone and the penalties vary from state to state.

A reading impairment, thought to be a genetic condition, which affects up to 10% of the nation's school children. Traits of dyslexia include transposing letters, difficulty recognizing letters or numbers, and poor handwriting. Children born to parents with dyslexia may be eight times as likely to have the condition.


Education Collaborative. EDCO is a voluntary collaborative of 21 urban and suburban school districts in Greater Boston. EDCO conducts programs for children, adolescents, youth at risk, families, and educators throughout Massachusetts.

Early action
This is a college admissions term that means you apply to college earlier and find out earlier if you've been accepted. You will be admitted early, but you don't have to attend.

Early decision
This is a college admissions term. It is an option for students who are sure of where they want to go to college, and who want to find out sooner than April if they’ve been accepted. The downside is you must promise to attend that school if you're admitted.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)
Passed in 1965 as part of President Johnson's War on Poverty. The ESEA focuses on children from high-poverty communities and students at risk of educational failure. The Act authorizes several well known federal education programs including Title I, Safe and Drug Free Schools, Bilingual Education (Title VII), and Impact Aid.

emotional and behavioral disorders
Also called EBDs, disorders characterized by consistently aggressive, impulsive, or withdrawn behavior, including schizophrenia. Each state classifies these conditions differently. Clinicians generally consider behavior to be an EBD if it impairs personal, social, academic, and vocational skills.

English-language learners (ELL)
Students enrolled in U.S. schools who speak a language other than English and haven't yet mastered English. They are also known as limited-English-proficient students. Each state has a different way of determining whether a child is an English-language learner. Usually such students receive bilingual education or English-as-a-second-language services.

Enrichment programs were originally designed for gifted children, but are now widely used with at-risk children as well. They are intended to supplement the regular academic curriculum for students who might otherwise be bored with their classwork. Enrichment includes activities such as special projects, guest speakers, concerts, and museum visits.

Fairness or justice, usually referring to the equitable distribution of something valued. In the education field, this term refers to the fair distribution of funding, technology, facilities, services, and equal education opportunities for both male and female students, including students with disabilities, students with limited proficiency in English, and students in high-poverty schools.

English as a Second Language. Refers to non-native English speakers or support programs for non-native English speakers.

The theory of evolution holds that a one-celled organism spontaneously emerged from steaming, nutrient-rich seas about 3.5 billion years ago, and that increasingly varied and complex organisms developed through such processes as genetic mutation. Over time, unforgiving environments killed the weaker members of each species—and sometimes the entire species—in favor of better-suited ones. Scientists say evidence supporting the theory of evolution includes fossil records, the existence of similar structures in different animals, and the fact that all living things share similar biochemistry. They say the theory of evolution is not only scientifically valid—it is the unifying theory of biology.

experiential education
Education that stresses hands-on experience, via field trips, internships, or activity-oriented projects, in contrast to traditional classroom learning.


financial aid
Monetary assistance available to students attending institutions of higher education. That aid can consist of low-interest loans, needs-based grants, scholarships, work-study funds, and fellowships.


gender bias
Conscious or unconscious differential treatment of females and males based on their sex. Gender bias can occur in a textbook, by a teacher, or by an employer.

gifted students
Pupils who have the ability to achieve beyond the norm either because of their IQ scores, their demonstrated skill in the classroom, or both. Once limited to academic skills, the definition of giftedness in many schools is expanding to include children with a wide variety of talents.

Goals 2000
A federal program that provides grants to states and school districts in exchange for the establishment of challenging academic content standards and accompanying assessments. It codifies the six national education goals that emerged from the 1989 education summit of President Bush and the nation's governors. Introduced by the Clinton administration and adopted by Congress in 1993, Goals 2000 has now expanded to eight national education goals.

gun-free school zones
State legislatures, in response to public concerns over violence in schools, have in recent years adopted laws which heighten penalties for individuals who are convicted of the illegal possession or use of a firearm in and around school property.


Head Start
A child development program founded in 1965 that helps prepare disadvantaged children for school. Established as part of President Johnson's anti-poverty agenda, it provides economically deprived preschoolers with education, nutrition, health, and social services at special centers based in schools and community settings throughout the country. The program is known for its high degree of parental involvement in planning and management.

home schooling
The practice of parents teaching their children at home rather than sending them to school. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 500,000 students (1% of U.S. school-age children) are now home schooled.


The condition of being unable to read. People were at one time considered illiterate if they could not write their name. The definition has been expanded so that literacy tests now measure people's ability to perform everyday tasks, such as reading a bus schedule.

A process whereby students who are in the special education program enroll in general education classes. Students are officially included on the general education roster and are graded by the general education teacher, but continue to receive support from the special education teacher. (Compare with "mainstreaming.") Inclusion is related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires that disabled children be educated in the "least restrictive environment" possible.

independent school
A private or nonpublic school that is not part of a school system. The school must hold a nonprofit status and be accredited by an approved state or regional association. It must also be nondiscriminatory, and it can be either religious or non-religious. An independent school is governed by a board of trustees instead of by the state board of education. It is funded by tuition and private donations and grants.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
A landmark 1975 federal law, originally known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. In exchange for federal money, schools must guarantee that all children with disabilities receive a "free, appropriate public education." The law has been amended several times but originally addressed children with disabilities who were kept out of the public schools, and taught either in institutions or at home.

informal knowledge
Knowledge about a subject that children learn through experience outside of school. For example, learning to count on their fingers or using objects for counting.

interdisciplinary curriculum
A curriculum that purposely applies the methodology and language from more than one discipline to examine a central theme.

Abbreviation for "intelligence quotient," which is supposed to reflect a person's mental capacities. IQ tests have become controversial in recent years because critics claim they measure only a narrow band of intellectual strengths, primarily "school smarts." Others claim the tests are biased against members of some minority groups.


job shadowing
Students accompany an employee at the workplace, observing and learning about different tasks associated with an occupation.


Labeling Theory
A broad theory of social behavior that explains how attaching labels to a person (such as deviant, disabled, high-risk, etc.) can shape both a person's self-perception as well as the perceptions and expectations of others toward the labeled person. In other words, the label reinforces the label.

learning disabilities (LD)
Refers to a wide range of learning difficulties. The criteria for having a learning disability varies from state to state. In general, however, a learning disability describes a discrepancy between a person's intelligence and academic achievement. Some children have learning disabilities in only specific areas, such as reading or math.

limited-English-proficient students
Students enrolled in U.S. schools who haven't yet mastered English. They are also known as English language learners. Each state has a different way of determining whether a child is limited-English-proficient. These students usually receive bilingual-education or English-as-a-second-language services.


magnet school
A school that places special emphasis on academic achievement or on a particular field, such as science, mathematics, arts, or computer science. Magnet schools are designed to attract students from elsewhere in the school district. There were initially created to remedy segregation.

The practice of placing students with educational and/or physical disabilities in general education classes. This encourages special education and general education students to interact with each other socially and academically. The special education teacher maintains the students' attendance records and grades. (Compare with "inclusion.")

A physical object that can be used to represent or model a problem situation or develop a mathematical concept. A manipulative could be blocks, sticks, coins, etc.

master teachers
Experienced teachers who work with newer teachers, or with teachers who are having trouble in the classroom, to help them become more effective.

Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. A state test, created by the Massachusetts Department of Education, which students in grades 4, 8, and 10 take every May. The state uses the MCAS to see if students are achieving the goals of the Massachusetts curriculum standards. Beginning with the class of 2003, Massachusetts students will be required to pass math and English MCAS tests in order to receive their diplomas.

McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a provision of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, which contains language affecting homeless and migrant children. The Act requires that each State ensures homeless or migrant children have equal access to public education.

merit pay
A plan to pay teachers on the basis of their demonstrated competence in teaching. The pay plans are controversial because it is difficult to objectively identify good teaching, and many argue that such plans would be little more than popularity contests.

The process of thinking about and regulating one's own learning. Metacognitive activities include recalling or reviewing what you already know about a subject, identifying gaps in your knowledge, planning strategies to fill those gaps, assessing the importance of new information, and revising your views about the subject.

Showing a student how to do a task, with the expectation that the student will copy the model. Modeling often involves talking about how to work through a task or thinking aloud.

Middle School Initiative. Launched by Citizen Schools in Boston. Now has after-school programs in Framingham, Worcester, Lowell, and Malden.

Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure. To be certified in Massachusetts, candidates must pass both the Communication and Literacy Skills test and the Subject Test, where available, for the license they are seeking. Classroom teachers, district and school administrators, and district and school support-service personnel must meet this requirement.

multicultural education
An educational curriculum that expands beyond curricula from the white Western European tradition. Some multicultural education models emphasize subjects from diverse cultural, ethnic, racial, and gender perspectives. Others represent a concentration in one culture, ethnicity, or race.


Out of School Time


National Assessment of Educational Progress. Known as "the nation's report card," NAEP is a national testing program administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education. Since 1969, NAEP tests have been conducted periodically in reading, math, science, writing, history, and geography to students in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. The assessment allows for regional and state-by-state comparisons.

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001
On January, 8, 2002, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The Act is the most sweeping reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) since it was enacted in 1965. It redefines the federal role in K-12 education in an effort to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and minority students and their peers. It is based on four basic principles: stronger accountability for results; increased flexibility and local control; expanded options for parents; and an emphasis on teaching methods that have been proven to work.

normed score
A score that compares the performance of an individual student to the performance of a nationally representative group of students.


open enrollment
Open enrollment is a policy allowing students to transfer in and out of schools as long as there is space available.


Parent-Teacher Association (PTA)
A national organization of parents, teachers, and other interested persons, with chapters in individual schools. PTA's are normally parent dominated, and rely entirely on voluntary participation. The PTA offers assistance to schools in many different ways.

parochial school
A school that is related to a church, most commonly to the Roman Catholic Church but also to Protestant denominations. Hebrew day schools can also be labeled "parochial."

pay equity
Paying teachers based on a single-salary schedule that pays men and women and elementary and secondary teachers the same. Teachers are paid based on how many years they have been teaching and how many educational credits or degrees they have earned.

A method of teaching reading by "sounding out" letters to form words.

pilot school
A public school that operates free of most district regulations on hours and scheduling. Unlike traditional schools, their reading, math, and other classwork is based on a specific theme or goal.

An organized collection of a student's work throughout a course or school year. Grades are based on this packet of materials, which measures the student's knowledge and skills and often includes some form of self-reflection by the student.

private school
An independent school that is controlled by an individual or agency other than the district or state. It is normally supported by private funds and is not controlled by public officials.

Transfer of the management of public schools to private or for-profit education organizations. Privatization stresses common business ideas such as customer satisfaction and managerial autonomy in running schools.

Removing a child from regular classroom settings for either remedial or enrichment coursework.


The process of redefining the boundary of an area that is unified for some purpose. This includes the joining or breakup of school districts, or the re-drawing of voting areas.

Regular admissions
This is a college admissions terms that means schools mail their decisions in April.

remedial education
Instruction that aims to bring students deficient in basic skills up to standard levels in writing, reading, and math.

report cards
The periodic evaluations of a student's academic progress, usually sent home to parents. Districts are required to inform the public about school performances based on test scores and other measures.

The most widely prescribed drug to treat attention-deficit disorder, a condition characterized by an inability to concentrate. Ritalin is the trade name for the drug methylphenidate, which is said to help filter out unwanted stimuli in the brain.

Rolling admissions
A college admissions term that means that a school processes applications as they come in. You can apply at any time, but spots fill up so it's best to apply early.


Scholastic Aptitude Test. The SAT I: Reasoning Test is a widely-used college admissions test that measures verbal reasoning, critical reading, and math problem-solving skills. It is designed to predict who will do well in college. The SAT II: Subject Tests, formerly called Achievement Tests, are taken by students who wish to show mastery of specific subjects, such as English, history and social studies, math, science, and language. Originally the SAT was called the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Today it is still called the SAT, but the name is just an acronym, with the letters no longer standing for anything.

SCANS Report
The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) is a massive two-year project of the U.S. Department of Labor. The 1992 report recommended many revisions to make school curricula and teaching methods more relevant to the modern workplace.

school choice
Any proposal that allows children to attend schools outside the borders of their local districts. Such schools may be other public institutions or private or religious schools. Often these proposals include public funding for all or some of the tuition costs.

school council
An elected body of parents, teachers, and community members that is mandated under the 1993 Education Reform Act. Councils are meant to advise the principal (who also serves as co-chair) on budget matters and school improvement plans.

school reform
A general term encompassing all kinds of efforts that are taking place to improve schools. Reform efforts pertain to all aspects of schooling, from how schools are run to what curriculum is taught in the classroom.

service learning
Programs that incorporate citizenship values in education by requiring students to participate in community service. In some districts, community service is a mandatory requirement for graduation.

site-based management
The shift of decision-making authority from centralized bureaucracies to local individual establishments. Such proposals vary, but they usually give control of an organization's operation to local administrators.

special education (SPED)
Programs designed to serve children with mental and physical disabilities. Such children are entitled to individualized education plans that spell out the services they need to reach their educational goals, ranging from speech therapy to math tutoring. Traditionally, special education took place in separate classrooms. Increasingly, the services may also be offered in regular schools and classrooms.

special needs student
A child who is determined to have a disability that affects his or her ability to make "effective progress" in regular classrooms without the help of specialists.

Subject-matter benchmarks to measure student academic achievement. Curriculum standards drive what students learn in the classroom. Most people agree that we need to raise the academic standards of public schools. There is great national debate, however, over how to implement such standards, how prescriptive they should be, and whether they should be national or local, voluntary or mandated.

standardized tests
Assessments that are administered and scored in exactly the same way for all students. Usually, these are mass-produced and machine-scored tests created by private testing services. They are designed to measure skills and knowledge believed to be taught to all students in a fairly standardized way.

Stanford 9 Achievement Test
A test of content typically taught in schools across the United States, meant to compare students to a representative national sample of students.


teacher certification
A process by which teachers become recognized by the state as expert teachers, implying that a teacher has mastered the complex art of teaching. This is different from a "licensed" teacher, one who teaches but is not considered an expert.

teacher licensure
The process by which teachers receive permission from the state to teach. States have minimum requirements such as the completion of certain coursework and experience as a student teacher. Some states, faced with shortages of teachers in particular areas, grant teachers emergency licenses and allow them to take required courses while they are full-time teachers.

Title I
Created in 1965 during the War on Poverty, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provides extra resources to schools and school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty. These are areas in which academic performance tends to be low and the obstacles to raising performance are the greatest. It is the nation's largest federal education program, with a current budget of $12 billion, serving 90% of the nation's school districts. As it is, however, Title I fully serves only about one-third of all eligible children.

Title IX
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 bars gender discrimination in education facilities that receive federal funding. Title IX cases, which historically have been filed at the college level, have increasingly been filed against K-12 schools for sex equity in extracurricular sports.

Title VII
Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is a federal program to make limited-proficient students proficient at the English language. Funding goes to alternative approaches to bilingual education, such as English immersion programs, as well as traditional instruction in a student's native language.

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) measures the ability of nonnative speakers of English to use and understand North American English as it is used in college and university settings. Scores on the test are required by more than 4,300 two- and four-year colleges and universities, professional schools, and sponsoring institutions.

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. Also called ability grouping.


vocational education
Instruction that prepares a student for employment immediately after the completion of high school. Although often thought of in terms of auto-shop or carpentry courses, such programs now frequently include a strong academic component and teach cutting-edge skills such as computer-aided design (CAD).

A document or chit, usually issued by the state, which can be used by parents to pay tuition at an out-of-district public school, a private school, and/or a religious school. The term is also used more broadly to describe school-choice proposals in which states would help pay tuition for children attending private or religious schools.


This is usually a college admissions term that means that you have met a school's admission requirements, but it has put you on its waiting list because the maximum number of applicants have already been accepted. You'll be offered a space only if one becomes available. If you're eventually accepted, you may have only a few days to decide.

whole language
A philosophy and instructional strategy that emphasizes reading for meaning and in context. Although teachers may give phonics lessons to individual students as needed, the emphasis is on teaching students to look at the wholeness of words and text.

year-round education
A modified school calendar that offers short breaks throughout the year, rather than a long summer vacation. Some schools stagger the schedules to relieve crowding. Others think the three-month break allows students to forget much of the material covered in the previous year.