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Basic-Skills Emphasis Said Harmful to Students

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Houston--A nationwide "revolution" in public schools to revise high-school curricula could focus attention on basic skills at the expense of higher learning and the arts, a number of educators meeting here said last week.

Speakers addressing the annual conference of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ascd) sounded a recurring theme: Moves by states and school districts to increase requirements for high-school graduation will not in themselves guarantee that the quality of education will improve.

"Literacy is multi-dimensional," said Maxine Green, professor of philosophy and the social sciences at Columbia University's Teachers College. "There is literacy in aesthetics, in technology," and in other fields, she noted, but in education the focus is only on basic skills.

Teach Students To Think

Ms. Green joined other educators at the four-day conference in urging state lawmakers and local school officials to use care when they revise the curriculum and to maintain classes that teach students to think--not just to repeat information they have memorized.

"We cannot and ought not settle for one-dimensional and functional literacy," she said. "The competition between print and video literacy that bothers some of us doesn't seem to bother educators. I don't think it's bad for students to learn about computers, I just think it's a shame to forget to ask all the other questions."

A focus on "basics," several speakers noted, could have a harmful effect on the educational progress of the bottom 5-to-10 percent of students. Ms. Green said such an emphasis could ultimately prevent those students from advancing their learning to higher levels. "There is a causal relationship between the exclusive emphasis on basics and the erosion of interpretive skills," she said.

But Arthur Lewis of the Universi-ty of Florida at Gainesville, countered that many students may give up "trying to struggle through classes that are too hard for them."

"We will see a tremendous increase in the dropout rate or we may see a subsequent drop in the standard of those courses," Mr. Lewis predicted.

'Watered-Down Versions'

Gordon Cawelti, ascd's executive director, said the new requirements may be "watered-down versions" of the standards imposed in an earlier era. "It couldn't be the physics and chemistry I taught," he said of the new, more stringent requirements being set for high-school students across the country.

O.L. Davis, the organization's president and a professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin, said that increasing graduation requirements might only substitute "quantity for quality."

"Something has gone dreadfully awry," Mr. Davis said "[The regulators] assume higher quality will be brought about by the addition of more courses."

Mr. Davis also criticized the current emphasis on basic skills and the related setting of "so-called minimum competency" standards. "Quality has come to mean minimum," he said, "and minimum requirements have reduced the maximum expectations."

Increase Math Requirements

In addition, the ascd president warned, the nationwide move to increase mathematics and science requirements could curb efforts to teach humanities and the arts. He said school boards hampered by budgetary restraints may hesitate to provide funding for arts and humanities programs while increasing those "technological" requirements deemed necessary by business and industry leaders.

"When we start cutting, those are the kinds of things that will go,'' Mr. Davis said. "We are likely not to pay for humanities and the arts."

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