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Standards for Language Arts Are Unveiled

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Washington

They call them national standards for the English-language arts. But the recommendations embodied in the document that two professional groups released here last week more closely resemble a set of principles for educators to follow.

Unlike the suggested national standards offered in most of the other disciplines, the language-arts document does not spell out what students should know and be able to do at several grade intervals.

It is an omission that has prompted criticism, but one that the leaders of the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English said is by design.

"They will be very general standards, but that is what we wanted to reflect," said Dolores B. Malcolm, the president of the IRA.

Sheridan Blau, the vice president of the NCTE, added: "It would be presumptuous in the least to tell any one group what they should be working at."

Instead, the two organizations are pitching the 132-page book as a publication by and for the profession to stimulate discussion, and they are emphasizing that it was not intended as a policy document. To drive home that point, they switched their news conference venue from the National Press Club to Gage-Eckington Elementary School here just days before the event was scheduled.

"We wanted to make clear this document was done by the profession for the profession," said Miles Myers, the executive director of the NCTE in Urbana, Ill. "We are not claiming we have public language here."

Both groups have produced a series of supplemental publications that provide more detail for the classroom teacher. And publications aimed at parents will be available soon. The NCTE's parent guide, for instance, has tips on what parents can do at home to help their children, such as encouraging them to keep a daily journal.

Despite the additional provisions that the NCTE and the Newark, Del.-based IRA made, the standards have nonetheless come under criticism.

"Unfortunately, they are very vague," said Michael Cohen, a senior adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. "They don't communicate clearly to teachers or provide any suggestion to parents about what students ought to learn."

"It looks more like a statement of philosophy that provides some background and grounding for professionals in the field," Mr. Cohen said. "That's not what people are looking for when they're looking for standards."

The document was also excoriated by some media commentators last week. "A curriculum guide for teaching English has just been released in a tongue barely recognizable as English," began an editorial that appeared in The New York Times.

But Mr. Cohen reiterated the Clinton administration's support of standards-based reform. "The fact that this falls short of the mark doesn't mean that we can't and aren't moving forward in developing standards in the states," he said.

The End Nears

The release of the English-language-arts document almost brings to a close the creation of voluntary national standards for K-12 education--a venture that began five years ago with the overall goal of raising academic expectations for all students.

Only economics standards remain, but that project has been hobbled by erratic funding pledges and the loss of key personnel.

The English-language-arts project also lost its funding when the Department of Education withdrew its support in March 1994, citing the vagueness of the project's content as one reason. The IRA and the NCTE decided to forge ahead, using $1 million of their own money.

Other national-standards projects have been greeted with mixed reviews--from the widely praised math standards, which the discipline developed long before standards became the clarion call for educational excellence, to the history standards, which generated great controversy when they became public in 1994 and are being revised.

States and districts have incorporated pieces of the various national standards into their own, as some proponents of standards had hoped.

For others, though, the outcome has been disappointing as it has become evident that students throughout the nation will not be exposed to the same high academic standards. (See Education Week, April 12, 1995.)

Expanding the Subject

The new English guidelines are more specific than they were in earlier drafts. (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1995.)

They do not, however, describe what students should know at grades 4, 8, and 12--the benchmarks that most of the other subject-matter groups used.

In fact, they use none of the prescriptive terms like "should," "ought," or "expected." Rather, they ask students to "read," "apply," "use," and so forth.

In part, the groups' leaders said they left out benchmarks because language arts is a process rather than content. Mr. Blau said he assumed, for example, that in math children need to learn fractions by a certain age.

"It doesn't work that way in language arts," he said.

The authors have also attempted to change the definition of literacy by expanding the language arts into six components--reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, and visually representing.

The addition of viewing and visually representing reflects the discipline's efforts to bring language-arts education in line with technology and to teach students to scrutinize what they see and hear.

Addressing Issues

On the list of standards, the writers address some of the most contentious issues in the field, although they do not resolve them. They said they did not intend to.

For example, the standards mention the conventions of language, such as spelling, the use of traditional English, and second-language learners, although they may not do so using those exact words.

In the section of the text that elaborates on the individual standards, the writers often impart a philosophy that is likely to meet with criticism.

For example, they make a plea for more bilingual-education programs.

Under the section that deals with standard English, which they describe as "the language of wider communication," the authors note that although students need to learn standard English, "this does not imply that other varieties of English are somehow correct or invalid."

And in discussing the capacity to use language to develop social and cultural understanding, the standards-setters write: "Celebrating our shared beliefs and traditions is not enough; we also need to honor that which is distinctive in the many groups that make up our nation."

The volume also includes vignettes that illustrate some classroom activities, which are broken down into elementary, middle, and high school examples.

Mirroring Practice

The national standards for English-language arts are coming out late in the game for many states and districts, which forged ahead on their own to craft curriculum guidelines for the subject that is the bedrock of precollegiate education.

Nevertheless, state education officials say they will be useful.

"They will call attention to areas that we didn't mention specifically in ours," said Nancy C. Andrews, the English-language-arts specialist for the Maine education department.

"This puts together in one place in pretty straightforward language what the consensus of the profession is," said Michael Frye, the state department's chief consultant for language arts and social studies in North Carolina.

Although teachers will not be able to build a curriculum from the document, said Mr. Frye, they will be able to use it as a basis of comparison.

"It's more of a mirror to look in and reflect on existing practice," he said.

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