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Subject-Matter Groups Convene Historic 'Congress'

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In what is thought to be the first meeting of its kind, leaders of 20 subject-matter groups convened last week to begin the long process of forging some common understandings about what to teach in the nation's schools and how to teach it.

The historic effort, officially known as the "Curriculum Congress," was organized by the Education Commission of the States and Collaboratives for Humanities and Arts Teaching with funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

A wide variety of national content-area groups, including those reting mathematics, science,h, and social-studies teachers, were invited to participate in the closed meeting, held Aug. 26-29 at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies in Colorado.

Working independently or in concert with other groups in related disciplines, many of the groups have released major reports in recent years criticizing existing curricula in their own fields of instruction and calling for sweeping reforms.

"We were concerned that these reports were coming out on a subject-by-subject basis without a lot of cross-subject communication," said Judith Renyi, who helped organize the meeting for CHART. The Rockefeller-funded coalition of 13 projects is designed to provide opportunities for teachers to experiment with instruction in the arts and humanities.

"We saw," added Gordon Cawelti, who participated in the meeting as executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, "that if we added up the time recommended for instruction in all these subject areas, you'd have a seven-day week and a 60-week year."

Organizers said the immediate intent of last week's meeting, however, was to divine some basic principles from among those recommendations upon which everyone could agree.

"We're talking to each other so that we can more effectively talk to the rest of the world," said Alan Farstrup, director of research and development for the International Reading Association.

The extent to which the participants agreed, according to several conferees interviewed last week, was "surprising."

"There is a natural tendency to want to protect your own turf, and I think people tended to drop their guard," Mr. Farstrup said.

They agreed, for example, that public-school curricula need to reflect and address the growing ethnic and academic diversity of students.

The participants concurred thats need to emphasize ways to teach students to think critically, solve problems, and be more creative. And they endorsed efforts to provide students with "hands on" learning experiences.

Participants said there was also widespread agreement that schools need to move away from their reliance on standardized tests for measuring academic quality. In place of such tests, the participants said, schools should develop more "authentic" ways of assessing academic progress, such as performance-based testing.

A report on all the agreed-upon principles will be available within the next several weeks, organizers said.

"When you sit and hear science, math, history, and social-studies teachers pretty much agreeing on what a classroom ought to look like and what teachers ought to be doing, that's pretty noteworthy," said Phyllis Franklin, executive director of the Modern Language Association, which also participated in the meeting.

Participants and organizers said the ability to speak with one voice would put the group in a better position to guide curricular reforms as the national movement to reform education continues to move beyond discussions about requirements for teacher-training, school structure, and course requirements and into the fundamental issue of what students ought to know. (See Education Week, May 17, 1989.)

"People are needing to add some substance and content to what has been, by and large, a generic movement," said Rex Brown, a meeting organizer who directs an education-reform project for the ECS

Among other groups participating in last week's meeting were the American Council of Learned Societies, the Council for Basic Education, the National Science Foundation, the North American Montessori Teachers Association, the Institute for International Studies, the Mathematical Sciences Education Board, the Quality Education for Minorities Network, the College Board's "Project Equality," and a representative from the National Education Association's "Mastery in Learning" project.

Organizers said the group will attempt to draw other subject-matter groups into their discussions over the next several months and meet again in late November or early December in Washington.

The final result of their new dialogue is still unclear, participants acknowledged.

Mr. Brown said the group plans to explore several issues in the future, including the possibility of establishing a permanent curriculum commission or of developing an action plan to help schools "flesh out" the broad national goals outlined by President Bush and the nation's governors during the past year.

Most participants added, however, that the final product would probably not be a recommended national curriculum--an idea that continues to engender opposition from advocates of local control over schools.

"There is a feeling here," Mr. Farstrup said, "that you can separate imposing a national curriculum from the process of adding what we know about a good curriculum to the reform process."

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