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Coalition Seeks To Improve Curriculum, Boost Nation's Agricultural 'Literacy'

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By Millicent Lawton

Calling for nothing short of a "revolution," a coalition last week unveiled a blueprint for updating and expanding agricultural education nationwide.

The "Strategic Plan for Agricultural Education" calls for, among other goals, developing a more science-based agricultural curriculum; increasing the nation's agricultural "literacy;" attracting more women and minorities to the agriculture field; and including the subject and its teachers in the educational mainstream.

The plan is "like a lighthouse," Larry D. Case, the senior program specialist for agriculture in the U.S. Education Department, said.

But, he added: "It's not a cookbook. It doesn't have the recipes in it."

Unveiled last Thursday at a Kansas City, Mo., press conference, the plan is the product of last year's National Summit on Agricultural Education and represents the collaboration of several groups, including the Education Department, the National Council for Agricultural Education, the American Vocational Association, and the National FFA Organization, formerly the Future Farmers of America.

The plan was heavily influenced, its developers said, by a largely negative report issued in 1988 by the National Research Council that called for vocational-agriculture courses to be more "contemporary" and for students nationally to be exposed to instruction in the field.

The findings in the NRC report, which the NCAE helped initiate, reinforced conclusions that the agricultural-education council already had reached about what needed to be changed, said John Pope, the group's executive director.

Mr. Pope acknowledged, however, that the NRC report was "very much a catalyst for what we're doing now."

In addition to offering recommendations, the new strategic plan also provides a frank self-examination of a discipline that has seen shrinking enrollment in recent years.

"It is essential that bold, innovative thinking be encouraged and revitalized to prevent stagnation and rejection," the introduction to the plan states. "More than ever, the community needs fresh ideas."

The plan--which is to be followed this winter by a "tactical plan" outlining specific steps for achieving its seven goals--seeks to revamp the education of the roughly 500,000 high-school students in 8,000 schools who are enrolled in agriculture courses, Mr. Case of the Education Department said.

For instance, he and others said, agriculture courses must reflect the industry's technological evolution and not focus solely on traditional farming practices.

"The days of plows, cows, chicks, and hicks are over in agriculture," Mr. Pope said. An agricultural curriculum must incorporate such topics as agri-marketing, biotechnology, food science, and water quality, he said.

"If you were teaching animal science and the proven methods of breeding ... what you would need to be teaching with it would be biotechnology and ... diseases, nutrition, marketing," Mr. Pope explained.

Another key component of the plan is the call for efforts to spread agricultural knowledge to non-traditional audiences.

Bringing meaningful programs about agriculture to all students is "a major endeavor" that the agricultural-education community has not attempted, Mr. Pope acknowledged. And exactly how it will do it, he added, has not yet been determined.

The plan also seeks to embrace students other than the stereotypical rural white males through a redesign of programs and activities as well as an outreach campaign. After 20 years of open membership, girls and young women still make up only about 30 percent of the National FFA.

In addition, the plan calls for:

Increased interaction between agricultural-education teachers and their colleagues;

An expansion in the teaching of leadership and personal skills; and

A fostering of free enterprise and entrepreneurship.

Free copies of the "Strategic Plan for Agricultural Education" are available from the National Council for Agricultural Education, P.O. Box 15160, 5632 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Alexandria, Va., 22309.

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