Last week’s Washington Post story on the failure of officials at the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) to produce a new academic plan was scarcely a shocker. But one detail in an otherwise sleepy codification of District dysfunction merited more examination: DCPS board of trustees Chairman Bruce K. MacLaury’s description of the process. “It’s always easy to ask for the moon, right? And that’s what we wanted,” said MacLaury in reference to the no-show plan. “But this is an iterative process.” (emphasis added)
Indeed it is, I guess. Journalists, school officials, and concerned citizens all over town rushed to their dictionaries to determine just what sort of process MacLaury was talking about. No one in the Washington City Paper offices could even venture an approximation. And our random poll of 10 DCPS employees suggested that MacLaury was speaking over their heads as well.
“OK, I say it means long and arduous, like a long and winding road,” said Diane, a teacher at a Northwest charter school who would not give her last name. That would be “itinerant,” ma’am. Barbara Childs, assistant principal at Cardozo High said, “I don’t want to hear the word. You have to direct your questions to the communications department.” Sandra Haynes, a second grade teacher at Turner Elementary, was at least willing to venture a guess: “I don’t know…difficult? Is this a joke?” Another unidentified DCPS schoolteacher came up with an elegantly bureaucratic way of saying she has no idea: “I do have the research and informational skills to find out what a word means, [but] not a contextual clue as to what the word means.” Now there’s the DCPS we have come to know, if not love.
Fairness requires us to report that the DCPS linguists are in some very good company. “I don’t know what it means,” said New York Times language maven William Safire. After Safire looked it up, he said, “Tell Mr. MacLaury that I called twice to reiterate that I didn’t know what it meant.”
“Anyone who stretches the language is doing an educator’s job,” added Safire.
That’s certainly the way MacLaury sees it. “The good thing about words is that they have precise meanings,” said MacLaury, who nonetheless cautioned against a literal reading of the dictionary definition. “It doesn’t mean ‘repetitious’ in the sense that you do it over and over again,” he said. ‘Repetitious,’ of course, would mean that MacLaury and his cohorts on the appointed board of trustees are wasting tax dollars by redoing the plan over and over. MacLaury’s proprietary definition of “iterative” is more nuanced: “It means successive approximations of where you want to go…until you get it right.”
Even if the word stumped wordmeister Safire, one District employee, an assistant principal at Dunbar High School, came up with the correct definition”repetitious”after five minutes on hold. When asked whether she had consulted a dictionary, she responded, “I didn’t look it up. That’s one of the words I heard the military use here.” Hey, maybe DCPS czar Gen. Julius Becton is in the educating business after all.
Erik Wemple and Jason Cherkis