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English Group Loses Funding For Standards

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The group that has been working on developing voluntary national standards for English and the language arts has lost its federal funding.

The Education Department this month notified the University of Illinois, the administrator of the grant, that support would be discontinued as of March 20.

"We find that there has not been substantial progress toward meeting the objectives in any of the approved applications and there is serious doubt that the University of Illinois will be able to achieve the stated goals within the given time,'' wrote Janice K. Anderson, the interim director of the department's Fund for the Improvement and Reform of Schools and Teaching, in a letter dated March 18.

Ms. Anderson last week said the department would mount a new competition to solicit proposals for developing the benchmarks.

"They may certainly apply again,'' she said of the three bodies that formed the English and language-arts standards project. "I think [expectations] may be clearer once the government puts out a solicitation.''

Three groups formed the nucleus of the project: the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the International Reading Association.

They received $960,000 from the Education Department and were seeking an additional $1 million when the federal agency called off the project.

Officials of the N.C.T.E. and the I.R.A. said that despite the department's action, they would continue on their own to develop content criteria defining what students should know and be able to do.

The groups said they would not reapply for a grant, but would present a formal proposal to the department describing their ongoing work on content standards.

Last week, they met with Sharon Robinson, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, in an attempt to work out a cooperative arrangement.

While officials of the reading and English organizations expressed hope of working with the department in the future, B. David Pearson, the dean of education at the University of Illinois, was more critical of the federal agency.

"I thought we were developing these standards for kids, their parents, and their teachers,'' Mr. Pearson said. "Apparently, the federal government was the real audience all along.''

'Serious Problems' Cited

At least 11 groups have been working on setting academic standards for their disciplines, and the acceptance that those efforts have enjoyed has diverged sharply. Two weeks ago, for example, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley embraced the national arts standards.

In addition to the arts and English, the federal government has been backing projects in civics, foreign languages, geography, history, and science. (See Education Week, Jan. 19, 1994.)

The Education Department used strong language in the letter outlining the areas in which it found "serious problems'' in the English-standards effort.

The proposed standards were "vague and often read as opinions and platitudes,'' lacked specificity, and concentrated on process, the letter said, and so failed to "define what students should know and be able to do in the domains of language, literacy, and literature.''

The department also charged that the draft standards lacked "a coherent conceptual framework, rendering them a loose assemblage of ideas and opinions.''

Moreover, the letter said, the development process failed "to confront major issues in the field'' and "to build on other relevant work, such as frameworks from states.''

Ms. Anderson said the group had focused on learning activities and elements that children should be exposed to, instead of what they should know and be able to do. She said the group had not dealt with such contentious issues as a canon of children's literature and standard versus "invented'' spelling.

"There are a lot of debates under way in this field, and the group that does this has to take them head on,'' said Ms. Anderson.

'Process as Knowledge'

The standards-group leaders defended their work, maintaining the project was right on track.

"We were at the midpoint of a three-year project,'' said Miles Myers, the executive director of the N.C.T.E. "We knew we had a lot of work to do.''

He said the first six months were spent building a constituency for the setting of standards--a subject of controversy within the professional organizations. (See Education Week, Dec. 1, 1993.)

Group leaders said the first draft received some of the same criticisms about vagueness offered by federal officials from the thousands of teachers who reviewed it.

The second draft, which is expected to be released soon, is more specific, said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the I.R.A.

Mr. Farstrup said that while the group was drafting standards, it did not intend to ignore process. "We're treating process as knowledge, as one important facet that goes beyond one set of information we're asking kids to know,'' he said.

Mr. Pearson said the format was a side-by-side listing of what students can do to demonstrate their mastery of the standards, and of what schools and teachers can do to promote that mastery.

"We view what we've done as consistent with our original proposal, and we have not deviated from that,'' said Mr. Pearson.

Delay Anticipated

Ms. Anderson acknowledged that seeking new proposals will delay the project. But because the new group can build on the work of the first group, such as using the materials and resources it has gathered, she said, "the learning curve will be a lot quicker.''

The FIRST official said she hopes to get a group running by fall.

Who might take over the federally funded project, if not the groups that represent English and language-arts teachers, is uncertain.

States that have been working on standards could be among the applicants, Ms. Anderson suggested.

But Doris Roettger, the president of the I.R.A., said the process would not be successful unless teachers participated. "It's very important that professional organizations should be able to define what students should know and be able to do,'' she said.

Meanwhile, the N.C.T.E. and the I.R.A. have vowed to have their standards developed within 12 to 15 months, raising the possibility of two parallel projects.

Ramsay Selden, the director of the state education-assessment center of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the potential duplication underscores the need for the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, which would be established under the Clinton Administration's "goals 2000: educate America act.'' (See story, page 16.)

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