“Words of Mass Reduction”

08 Feb

Reflections of an Author

Submitted by Frank Murphy, February 8, 2011

In a post recently published on the Notebook blog, I stated my objection to the use of the phrase “70,000 Vacant Seats” in order to describe the amount of unused space in Philadelphia Public Schools.  I took exception to this descriptor because I consider it to be an example of what I call “Words of Mass Reduction” or a “ WMR” for short.

What exactly is a “WMR”?   It is a concise and powerful word bomb that is employed by those who are intent on discrediting and dismantling public schools.   These explosive sound bites are intended to quickly silence opposing viewpoints.  Frequently they are utilized in order to create provocative newspaper headlines and/or TV news clips.  An effective WMR will take a complex and multidimensional issue and shrink it down to a simplistic and emotionally amplified slogan.   Here is a brief list of some of the WMRs that are frequently tossed around in the educational community.

• “Poverty is just an excuse Wealthy free market school reformers often employ this line in order to deny that a school’s academic success is highly linked to the number of impoverished children it serves.

• Any critic of the unreasonable NCLB accountability standards imposed on schools is suffering from “the soft bigotry of low expectationsaccording to President George W. Bush.

• “Children come first.” This is the number one rationale used by Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to justify her autocratic management decisions.

“What we need are teachers who don’t make excuses” Dr. Ackerman’s response to teachers who disagree with her ideas regarding how to instruct children.

• Creating a school choice voucher program in Pennsylvania is an important objective for “a new civil rights campaign according to State Senator Anthony Williams.

As a writer I give careful consideration to choosing the words I use in order to either communicate an idea or to describe a specific situation.  I believe that how you choose to say something is almost as important as what you have chosen to say.

This is why I am leery of those who chose to use “Words of Mass Reduction”.  I am suspicious of people who communicate their school reform arguments in a manner that is intended to dismiss the the ideas of others. By choosing to deliver their message in heavily loaded language, they demonstrates their lack of interest in engaging in a robust exchange of ideas regarding important and controversial topics.

Indeed it appears that they are intent on deliberately stifling any possibility for discussion.  In so doing they show a disturbing disregard for our society’s cherished belief in the right of free speech.

I invite you to share your own favorite examples of WMRs.  Either post them as a comment here or send them in a  e-mail to

  1. Dina Portnoy

    February 9, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Thank you Frank! I’ve been looking for a way to characterize these sound bites that are largely about attacking public education and its teachers and giving our larger society an excuse to ignore the needs of the poor. WMR will work.