Principals, Do You Know Your Power Words?

My satirical pieces are often mistaken for true stories. But here’s a true story that I would have mistaken for satire, had I not read it in the Dallas Morning News.

Mike Miles, the new Dallas schools superintendent, has directed principals to use “power words” and “acknowledgment phrases” when speaking with parents and others. The Dallas ISD has even printed a booklet of “power phrases and remarks.”

For instance, a principal might say, “We are all about improving student performance and the quality of instruction; that is the expectation.”

The “acknowledgment phrases” include “It depends,” “That’s true,” or “Actually, I disagree.” Principals are encouraged to use them to preface one of 13 statements, such as “Our work will be professional, equitable, rigorous and student-focused.”

The reporter, Matthew Haag, discovered that the Dallas ISD had paid consultant Merrie Spaeth, of Dallas-based Spaeth Communications, Inc., to help craft these words and statements. Spaeth, Miles, and DISD communications chief Jennifer Sprague collaborated on the project.

There’s a catch, though: half-scripted dialogue doesn’t work. It has to be all scripted or not. Spaeth et al. should have come up with power phrases for the parents as well. Then principals and parents could have real meaningless conversations, such as the one that follows.

(The principal’s words below are all taken from the article, except for her last two sentences. The parent’s words are made up.)

Principal: “The superintendent’s plan brings stability and a clear direction to the district.”

Parent: “I agree. The superintendent is proactive and goal-oriented.”

Principal: “That’s true. Destination 2020 will take five to eight years to achieve, but we will make significant progress in one year.”

Parent: “I am proud to be a member of this achievement-centered team. My son will pitch his literacy growth action plan at the next goal-implementation assembly.”

Principal: “We are all a team at the school.”

Parent: “Indeed; the true team player sees accountability as a game-changer.”

Principal: “I have to learn more power phrases before I can continue this conversation. Good day.”

Parent: “We are all lifelong learners here. Good day.”

One could even use the “power word generator” (created by Daniel Lathrop of the Dallas Morning News) to keep the conversation going. When you don’t have to make sense, why stop, ever?

Leave a comment


  1. Spaeth came up with this? She may have some rational explanation, or perhaps it just got out of hand. Perhaps she suggested that Dallas ISD administrators need to come up with some more plausible sounding things to say, instead of, “We’ll get the books out soon — what? Six weeks gone already?” or instead of “Not enough desks for all the students in 5th period? Have you tried re-arranging them to, you know, facilitate ‘accountable talk?'”

    I sat through a four-hour “in-service training” session once which included a 15-minute, rambling 8-slide PowerPoint listing Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits” that was billed as the training that implemented Covey’s ideas at the school (Covey was never mentioned again). So I have seen how seemingly good ideas can get choked to death as they leak down into the basement of actual education in the district. Spaeth may have had a decent idea. But I think Spaeth should consider giving back any money she collected for that fiasco.

    There must be more to the story. Heaven help us, it’s not something we want to hear, but it’s probably something we need to know. Let us pray it isn’t something the FBI and U.S. attorney need to know.

  2. Spaeth has long been on the dark side, as a glance at her Wikipedia page suggests. What makes it especially sad is that she was in the The World of Henry Orient (1964), one of the most wonderful movies about growing up ever made.

  1. District Embraces Conversation Starters « Diana Senechal
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