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Can Standards Come From Teaching?

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The U.S. Education Department's decision to eliminate funding for the group setting national standards for English and language arts ("English Group Loses Funding for Standards,'' March 30, 1994) seems highly ironic given the dramatic progress toward reform made by whole-language teachers over the last 10 years. Some of these outstanding teacher-reformers had actually been named to the standards group and were no doubt making important contributions. Those of us who believe that it is good teaching that ultimately produces effective standards, rather than the reverse, find ourselves extremely disappointed at this turn of events.

Certainly anyone who has been attending crowded teachers' conferences on reading and language arts or clocking the sales of Hein Hemann's books on whole-language topics (yes, classroom teachers buying thousands of professional books for their own use) is well aware of the remarkable surge of activity and interest now in evidence. Classroom teachers at all levels, but especially in elementary schools, have brought about a grassroots movement the like of which has never been seen in our educational system.

Such extensive changes were not made because a "standards'' group urged them on the schools, however. Since the mid-1980's elementary teachers have been communicating directly with one another concerning how they might discard basal readers and stress greater use of genuine literature in their reading programs and how to use a process approach which enables youngsters to experience more authentic writing activities.

Yes, critics warn that teachers have been fooled by a small group of gurus busily leading them down the wrong path, but the speed at which these innovations have been adopted clearly demonstrates that those who showed interest must have learned far more from one another than from any platform performer. Even some of the people thought of as gurus are themselves classroom teachers who identified better ways of teaching reading and writing through experimentation with their own classes and are now sharing their insights. Teachers committed to helping each other also joined local whole-language support groups, which in turn banded together as the Whole Language Umbrella--with more than 30,000 members in North America and beyond. All this must surely represent the most exciting large-scale example of "teachers teaching teachers'' to be found anywhere at any time.

Rapid acceptance and growth took place for varied reasons. Most importantly, a large proportion of teachers, both elementary and secondary, were ready for change. The teaching force of a dozen years ago was generally mature but dissatisfied in several respects. They were adept at using standardized, unexciting reading materials but worried about bored children, many of whom did not appear to enjoy reading. More and more teachers did not even try to teach writing, since the old business of marking up students' efforts with red pencils so that products could be corrected and copied over seemed to accomplish so little.

And what these dissatisfied people heard about changes from whole-language advocates rang true. With little hesitation the moderately adventurous among them began to accept the view that reading library books would prove much more attractive to children than continuing use of conventional commercial "readers.'' Many of these teachers had already rediscovered the power inherent in reading stories to children on a daily basis, even if this meant taking class time away from the completion of hundreds of skill sheets, a practice much in vogue since the 1970's. Coming to accept every child as a writer was a similar insight, and in some school situations staff members chose to start there. Students would learn to write by doing real writing and improve in reading by turning to real books.

When they had opportunities to talk with those who were making progress or, especially, to visit classes using whole-language procedures, interested teachers discovered that what was being done had relevance for them. They also realized that teachers could start when and where they liked and go as far as seemed comfortable; it wasn't necessary to abandon an existing program and do something entirely different immediately. Small steps were possible, and advice from supportive and more experienced colleagues was usually available.

Opposition to this impressive example of bottom-up reform has generally been muted. Although whole language, like other proposed instructional changes, often appears on the no-no lists compiled by the semiprofessional opposers, parents have not usually been taken in. When their children are enthusiastically discussing favorite books and authors and bringing home their own writing products (often done on word processors), moms and dads see validity. So do school leaders.

While it might seem reasonable that standards should evolve readily from successful teaching (Dewey said that theory ought to grow out of good practice), this hasn't often been the case in American education. Rather, we have had mostly top-down procedures which ignore the experiences of teachers and recommend what will enhance the reputations of program developers and administrators.

It is not too late, however, to avoid repeating past errors involving other levels of the school system (imposing a "canon of literature'' on 3rd graders, as some of the current standards authorities apparently wish to do) or other times (top-down, minimally successful innovations such as the "new math'' of a generation ago, similarities to which may be found in the mathematics-standards edifice recently constructed but likely to be of little interest to teachers). In these ways we can seek to do not what oversight groups want, but what teachers and students need.

Dick Salzer is an associate professor in the department of learning instruction at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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