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Returning to Teaching: Digesting the Alphabet Soup

Spring 2021
Read Time: 15 minutes

Education Is Full of Acronyms, and They Never Stop Coming   Illustration of an apple

Illustration of girl holding a pencil

During her last year at BYU, Christiana Forbush, ’08, felt prepared to achieve her lifelong goal of becoming a teacher. She had studied English, history, and secondary education at the McKay School; was completing a yearlong internship at Dixon Middle School in Provo; and was ready for the feast of challenges and joys that teaching brings. 

What she didn’t expect was to be immediately served a gigantic helping of acronyms, a confusing alphabet soup of letters in constant use at school. Forbush wrote IEPs and committed herself to CRT. She shared ideas on PD and MTSS with her BLT. She enjoyed her PLC; spent time preparing a PGP; worked under the guidance of NCLB, ESSA, IDEA, FERPA, and the USBE; and did her best to help with DTL, ELL, DDI, and her school’s CSIP. 

Not sure what all that means? Neither was Forbush, at first. 

“If you don’t include my internship year, I learned very few [acronyms] across all of my college experience,” said Forbush, who now teaches at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. “I think the only one I learned was IEP.” 

Once she began teaching, she said, acronyms “were thrown at me left and right. It’s part of the language and culture of education, and it’s everywhere you go. You start getting them from your state and your district. Schools have their own acronyms, and you’re always having to learn them.” 

McKay School assistant professor Brandon McMillan, himself a former middle school teacher, had a tongue-in-cheek take on the endless stream of acronyms in education: “We like to have acronyms to show, ‘Hey, this is really important here!’” 

Acronyms are verbal shorthand that can communicate big ideas in one small word, but McMillan said the sheer numbers of them flooding into schools can defeat that purpose. “They’re trying to make it easier to understand, but everybody’s always sharing their acronyms from all sides,” he said. 

An open secret of education, Forbush said, is that teachers often use acronyms without knowing exactly what they stand for. As a provisional teacher in Utah’s Jordan School District, she was evaluated under JPAS for several years without ever knowing that it stands for Jordan Performance Appraisal System. “A skill that teachers have is knowing what an acronym is without actually knowing what it means,” Forbush said, laughing. “That’s not a normal skill the average human has. There are just so many, and they keep coming, and they change all the time. We’ve learned a bunch of new acronyms to deal with COVID, and not just PPE.” 

Forbush said teaching is a highly complex job with tons of moving parts and accountability to myriad groups. Some acronyms happen in efforts to ease communication across many stakeholders: educators, students, administrators, politicians, parents, bureaucrats, businesspeople, and the community. 

Most teachers pick up enough acronyms “through osmosis” to get along, she said, without necessarily knowing exactly what every acronym stands for. “When I’m talking to other teachers about CTESS or IPOP, they just need to know it’s about evaluations,” she said. “When newer teachers ask me about some district-specific one, I just say, ‘You don’t need to know. This is what it’s about.’ First-year teachers have so much on their plates without worrying about memorizing acronyms; they’ll pick it up or hear it enough that they’ll understand it.” 

McMillan said experienced teachers like Forbush are a lifeline to help rookies absorb acronyms slowly—like one spoonful of hot soup at a time. “Find other teachers who can help you,” he said. “It’s too much to talk about everything at once. You’ll have mentor teachers to guide you through. What’s most important is how you engage in the classroom and work with your students. You can learn a lot of the rest of those things as you go.” 

Acronyms are everywhere in education. Know these?    Illustration of an apple

A) This landmark federal law, passed in 1965 and reauthorized by Congress every five years, ensures equal access to education and funds efforts to reduce achievement gaps, establish standards and accountability, and provide funding for professional development and other education-boosting resources. 

  1. EASA 
  2. ESEA 
  3. ESSEA 
  4. ESA 

B) What does LAND Trust—a term used in Utah to signify public lands and other resources set aside to be used for the benefit of Utah students—stand for? 

  1. It doesn’t actually stand for anything; the capitalization signifies that this is a larger statewide program, as opposed to a private land trust. 
  2. Legislated Access to New Development 
  3. Land and Non-Use Designation 
  4. Learning and Nurturing Development 

C) FAPE is now a fundamental concept in American education. What does it stand for? 

  1. Framing and Performance in Education: the data-based concept now governing most lesson planning. 
  2. Federal Action for Physical Education: establishing government funding to preserve PE programs in underfunded schools. 
  3. Free and Appropriate Public Education: boosting the right to education for people with disabilities that is equal to that of non-disabled students. 
  4. Familiarize, Acclimate, Pace, Extend: an established order in which new academic and behavioral concepts are introduced, taught, and expanded. 

D) Which of these high-concept educational practices is not real? 

  1. ECAL: The Japanese-originated idea behind Every Child a Leader is that classrooms can build leadership skills through rotating student responsibilities. 
  2. SMART: A goal-setting method used in many educational settings, it reminds us to set goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. 
  3. SEL: Social and Emotional Learning helps students gain skills to manage feelings, express empathy, build healthy relationships, and make good decisions. 
  4. CCR: College and Career Readiness is the concept of helping students achieve the type of education that will help them professionally in the future. 

E) Which of these similar acronyms is the imposter? 

  1. STEM: The idea of boosting interest in and funding for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math in an effort to improve U.S. performance in these fields. 
  2. STEAM: A response to STEM, this concept holds that a foundation in liberal Arts boosts creativity, flexibility, and critical thinking in scientific and technical fields. 
  3. STEMM: This adaptation of STEM acknowledges the research-established link between high performance in math and a lifelong education in Music. 
  4. They’re all real! 

Fun Fact
It could be hard to figure out what CASE stands for through context clues because it has multiple meanings in education and even more in the wider world. Among them are Content Area Special Education, Council for Administrators of Special Education, Core Academic Skills for Educators, Center for Advanced Study in Education, and even that common practice for educators passing along great ideas: Copy and Steal Everything! 

A) 2: Elementary and Secondary Education Act • B) 4 • C) 3 • D) 1 • E) 3 

Family Trees    Illustration of an apple

Illustration of a person holding apples in a basketOne acronym has the power to spawn many. Here’s one “family tree” of related acronyms representing laws, programs, and ideas that, used together, can result in a fruitful harvest of student learning and progress. 

IEP: A foundational document in a special-needs child’s education, an Individualized Education Plan governs how students are educated and tracks their progress over time. 
LRE: This requirement, written into many laws, states that students who need special education services should receive them in the Least Restrictive Environment possible. 
PBIS: Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports are schoolwide initiatives aimed at improving behavior through positive reinforcement and incentives. 
SST: The Student Support Team consists of everyone—teacher, administrator, support staff, and specialists— involved in planning learning, interventions, and support for a student. 
BIP: A component of many IEPs, the Behavior Intervention Plan includes plans for changing behaviors that interfere with student learning. 
IDEA: The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act set standards regarding accountability, equity, and access relating to the education of children with disabilities.
FAPE: The guiding concept behind IDEA is the notion that students with disabilities must receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education, designed to fit their needs, that is equal to the education provided to non-disabled students. 
504: Okay, it’s not an acronym, but section 504 of 1973’s Rehabilitation Act, a civil rights law that set up accommodations for students with disabilities, is still often referred to as a guide in setting up new regulations for schools that accept federal tax dollars. 

  Quiz: Do you know your education acronyms?  Match these acronyms found throughout our story with their meanings (not what each letter stands for but what it’s about!). 

Quiz acronyms

A Unless you’ve spent the last year or so in Ittoqqortoormiit, which looks like an acronym but is the most isolated village in Greenland, you are likely familiar with the global pandemic, now in its second year. This refers to that virus. 

B This group of faculty, staff, and administrators represents their fellow school workers and helps write school improvement plans. 

C This 2015 reauthorization of ESEA replaced NCLB and moved responsibility for setting standards to states, decreasing the federal role. 

D This federal law guarantees the privacy of students’ educational records and gives parents and students the right to access those records. 

E This is a group of educators who collaborate to improve teaching skills and student academic performance. 

F This is the governing and licensing body for schools and educators in Utah. Other states might have similar acronyms for similar organizations. 

G This research-based learning approach endeavors to make connections between students’ school subjects and their cultures, languages, and life experiences. 

H This highly local acronym refers to the educator evaluation system used by Utah’s Canyons School District (use context clues in the story!). 

I This umbrella term covers a variety of efforts aimed at effectively using technology in student learning. 

J Teachers regularly create this legal document for a child needing special education services, which include gifted and advanced-learner programs. 

K This method for renewing a professional educator license compiles a record of a teacher’s professional growth and development. 

L This federal law sets standards regarding accountability, equity, and access for the education of children with disabilities. 

M This acronym refers to any type of continuing education for teachers. 

N Used in multiple states, this refers to the practice of writing measurable, actionable annual plans to improve student learning. In Utah, it’s tied to schools’ spending of trust lands money. 

O This acronym refers to a framework that helps schools support students who are struggling academically, behaviorally, and emotionally or in multiple areas. 

P If, during a pandemic, you teach in person or provide health care services, you’re going to need a lot of this. 

Q This controversial act was the 2001 reauthorization of ESEA and established a relationship between school funding and academic progress. 

R The students represented by this acronym are unable to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English (yet!). 

S This approach to improving student learning includes assessment, analysis, and data-based action and is a framework for schoolwide support of student success. 

T This second highly local acronym is a component of CTESS that governs how teachers are observed during their evaluations. Fun fact: it can also refer to increasing inclusion and quality of education for preschoolers with IEPs. 


1 J: Individualized Education Plan/Program—in some districts, Individualized Learning Plan (ILP) 
2 G: Culturally Responsive Teaching 
3 M: Professional Development 
4 O: Multi-Tiered System of Support 
5 B: Building Leadership Team 
6 E: Professional Learning Community 
7 K: Professional Growth Plan 
8 Q: No Child Left Behind 
9 C: Every Student Succeeds Act 
10 L: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 
11 D: Family Education Rights and Privacy Act 
12 F: Utah State Board of Education 
13 I: Digital Teaching and Learning 
14 R: English Language Learners 
15 S: Data-Driven Instruction and Inquiry 
16 N: Comprehensive School Improvement Plan 
17 A: COronaVIrus Disease 
18 P: Personal Protective Equipment 
19 H: Canyons Teacher Effectiveness Support System 
20 T: Instructional Priorities Observation Protocol, or Inclusive Placement Opportunities for Preschoolers 

This is the second article of a four-part series. Click the links below to read more tips about returning to teaching

Written by Stacey Kratz
Illustrations by Abigail White '23