A legislator in Washington state wants to rewrite laws that characterize poor children as “disadvantaged” or “at-risk,” so that they instead read “at hope.” She thinks there’s a significant difference between those phrases:
Positive labeling is more than a gimmick or political correctness, Franklin says. She believes her idea could lead to a paradigm shift in state government and to changes in classrooms across the state.
The paradigm shift won’t happen, although political correctness is not to blame. There’s a place for political correctness; in some cases, updating legal language to be more sensitive is the right thing to do. For example, laws that were written many years ago may refer to medical conditions or physical disabilities in terms we would now consider offensive. That’s the reason behind this proposal to change the name of a Missouri agency. Racial designations are also susceptible to obsolescence, although switching to the politically correct language is not always easy, as the Census Bureau has found with the word “Negro.” (While many people take umbrage at the name, a diminishing number of people still identify with it, so removing it from forms could impair the accuracy of the Census.)
Politically correct language is useful when you want to avoid antagonizing people. However, you can’t solve a problem just by describing it with different words. Proponents of the “at hope” label argue that children respond to expectations, but the phrase wouldn’t change anyone’s expectations. People form expectations based on their experiences and on available information, not on the legal lexicon. The phrase could actually lower people’s expectations if they suppose that the state wouldn’t establish a euphemism to describe children who really had potential.
Expecting a phrase to transform education is like asking children to learn music with the “think system.” It’s an attractive idea, but it lacks a basis in reality.