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'Literacy' Urged For All Students On Agriculture

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By Reagan Walker

Washington--The nation needs to shore up its knowledge base in agriculture by creating better, more "contemporary" vocational courses and exposing all students, beginning in kindergarten, to some kind of systematic instruction in the field.

That is the conclusion reached by the National Research Council in a three-year study whose findings were released here last week.

The study found that students' knowledge of the scientific, economic, and environmental forces that determine the supply of food is alarmingly low.

Contending that "agriculture is too important a topic to be taught only to the relatively small percentage of students considering careers in [it] and pursuing vocational-agriculture studies," it urges school officials to seek innovative ways of making "agricultural literacy'' a part of the regular curriculum.

The report was written by a committee of experts convened by the nrc--an arm of the National Academy of Sciences--at the urging of federal agencies.

The document also suggests ways of opening up the vocational component of agricultural education to a broader spectrum of students, particularly minority and urban youths.

One of those ways is implicit in its criticism of the 435,000-member Future Farmers of America, which it says may inadvertently "lessen for many students the attractiveness of enrollment in vocational-agriculture programs."

The report urges not only a name change for the federally chartered high-school group, but also a change in orientation--from the production side of agriculture to the many facets beyond the farm that make up what has come to be called "agribusiness."

The need to adapt education to the contemporary scope of U.S. agriculture--from marketing, finance, and biotechnology, to more traditional areas of research and production--is a major theme of the report, which comes at a time when college officials are reporting enrollment declines in schools of agriculture.

But it also emphasizes the inadequacy of the average student's grasp of what agriculture is.

"Agricultural education must become more than vocational education,'' said Daniel G. Aldrich, the nrc committee's chairman and chancellor emeritus of the University of California at Irvine at a press conference here last week.

Mr. Aldrich urged that knowledge about the field be integrated into current coursework in science, social studies, mathematics, and other subject areas.

"This committee recommends," he said, "that all students--regardless of their career goals or whether they are urban, suburban, or rural--receive some systematic instruction about agriculture. This instruction should begin in kindergarten or 1st grade and continue through 12th grade."

The nrc study was initiated in 1985 at the request of the federal Departments of Agriculture and Education, "because of concerns about the declining enrollment, instruc4tional content, and quality in agricultural education," according to Mr. Aldrich.

The study was also designed, he said, to assess how such instruction could better contribute to "the maintenance and improvement of U.S. agricultural productivity and competitiveness here and abroad."

A recent study by researchers at the University of California at Davis found that enrollments in agriculture at 50 land-grant universities--state-supported colleges that account for a heavy percentage of graduates in the field--had dropped by 36 percent since 1979.

The researchers attributed the decline to students' concerns that the farm crisis had curtailed economic opportunities in the field. Ninety percent of the deans of agriculture interviewed for the study said they felt that image, rather than reality, was spurring a student retreat from what are actually extensive agriculture-related career opportunities.

'Agricultural Literacy'

The panel of educators and agribusiness representatives assembled by the nrc also found a wide gap between the reality of agriculture and what most American students know about it.

Their report describes an agriculturally literate person as one who has an understanding of the food and fiber systems, including historical developments and current economic, social, and environmental issues.

It called for inservice and special summer programs to train teachers in how to use new instructional materials and to take advantage of students' interest in agricultural subject matter.

Reform in Vocational Courses

The committee found that less than 5 percent of the high-school population enrolls in a three- or four-year vocational-agriculture program, and that most such programs are, in Mr. Aldrich's words, "uneven in quality."

"The focus and content of the programs are often outdated," he said. "Production agriculture, or farming, still dominates most vocational programs even though it no longer represents a major share of the jobs in the agricultural industry."

In the committee's view, Mr. Aldrich said, vocational agriculture should give students skills in agribusiness marketing and management; agricultural research and engineering; food science, processing, and retailing; banking; education; landscape architecture; urban planning; and other fields.

It also urged that schools require more supervised occupational experiences in such settings as land laboratories, agricultural-mechanel10lics laboratories, greenhouses, nurseries, and other facilities.

And it urgently recommended improving the accessibility and drawing power of vocational-agriculture programs for girls and minority students.

"Minority students in urban schools have the least access to these programs," he said.

The report urges the establishment of specialized magnet high schools for the agricultural sciences in major urban and surburban areas. (See related story, this page.)

Changing the 'Future Farmers'?

The report's sharp criticism of the Future Farmers of America, the largest student organization in the country, cites principally its failure to convey a "contemporary image" of vocational agriculture.

It suggests that the organization, which was chartered in 1928 by the Congress, not only change its name, but also revise its symbols, rituals, contests, awards, and requirements for membership.

Mr. Aldrich said that the organization's rural symbols, such as the plow, and its production-oriented focus in contests and awards do not convey the breadth of vocational opportunity available through agricultural programs.

In an interview, William Stagg, a spokesman for the national f.f.a., said that the organization had been considering a name change for the past four years, but that the suggestion was defeated at last year's national convention.

He said the organization has been using the abbreviation f.f.a. more often than its full name as a way to lessen the emphasis on farming. It is a technique, he said, that General Electric found useful when it began to branch out.

But Ellen Summerfield Russell, a member of the nrc committee and professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, said that was not enough.

"F.f.a. will continue to stand for Future Farmers of America, and everyone will know that," she said. "Just as everyone knows what g.e., the f.b.i., and the c.i.a. stand for." Ms. Russell was the founding principal of an agriculture magnet school in Chicago.

Mr. Stagg also said the organization had begun to change its contest structure by adding such categories as "agriscience" and marketing.

"A lot of what is in the report falls in step with what the f.f.a. is already doing," he said. "Our contest base is broadening out."

Expand Teacher Preparation

To prepare teachers for vocational agriculture, the report recommends that education programs continue to stress applied learning, but strengthen instruction in science, technology, economics, agribusiness marketing and management, international agriculture, and public policy.

A national center for curriculum design and personnel development should be established, its says, and the Agriculture Department should consider issuing challenge grants to universities to initiate new linkages between colleges of agriculture and the public schools.

While the report does not offer specific policy prescriptions, it says that both programmatic and budgetary changes are needed to provide a comprehensive vocational-agriculture system that reflects the changes occurring in the field.

The report, "Understanding Agriculture: New Directions for Education," is available for $8.95 prepaid from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20418.

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