In the Hoover Digest, Spring 2013 issue, Chester E. Finn writes in “A ‘Bar Exam’ for Teachers?” about his concern with a phrase in one of the American Federation of Teachers’ objectives for such a national exam. It is the phrase “in-depth test of subject . . . knowledge.” He indicates that the AFT document tells little about what subject knowledge is to be known. Finn, along with the blogger Andrew Rotherham, at Eduwonk, has doubts about the purity of the AFT proposals to raise standards for new teachers.
But I am still stumbling over the expression, “in-depth”. Yes, it is in my dictionaries. Yes, it means what it means. It also is among the most overused words in “professional” discourse. My students litter their papers with it. In practice, however, the word often means little. Beyond that concern, with so many richly nuanced candidates in the dictionary, why not consider using them?
I have in mind (to replace the term in the objectionable phrase) words like deep, comprehensive, thorough, ample, complete, extensive, and exhaustive. Yes, I know that speakers and writers seek words that communicate to hearers and readers clearly. But I refuse to accept the assumption that jargon serves best, when a better word, just the right word, could serve better and more thoughtfully.
A word fitly chosen is like apples of gold in baskets of silver. The baskets of silver are rare, still rarer the apples of gold.
But back to Finn’s doubts about the AFT’s concern for subject-matter knowledge also relate to the emphasis on an “in-depth test” rather than a test of comprehensive knowledge. We do have too many “in-depth” tests, and often too little mastery of content in the teaching field. Perhaps the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards can develop acceptable nationwide standards for disciplinary examinations, but I am with those observers who ask whether that is a good idea. Apparently it sounds like a good idea to some, or might it also serve unspoken political purposes? This matter is worth attending to over the near term.