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National Standards for English: The Importance of Being Vague

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What is vague challenges us as nothing else can. The just-released national standards for the teaching of English do not offer precise, delineated steps some would like and most would expect. What they offer is much more important: a framework for meaningful discussion about how best to teach English; a challenge to everyone--teachers, parents, politicians--to argue their case in response to these guidelines.

Developed over the past three years by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, the standards' most important and immediate accomplishment is, in fact, the dialogue they will inspire. (See Education Week, March 20, 1996.)

Even before their release, the standards elicited visceral, sometimes angry responses from English teachers. The document's shape and contents evolved, in fact, in response to teachers' comments.

Take it from me, an English teacher caught up in this evolutionary process, few have seen papers so riddled with red marks and enthusiastic or irate comments as the early drafts of this document. I spent one entire afternoon in an Arizona hotel engaged in a heated discussion with English teachers from all over the country in which we focused on the words "students will be taught in the prevalent language of their community." "This document is so weighed down with political correctness that it can't even come out and say 'all kids will learn English,' for heaven's sakes!" one teacher snapped, with sounds of agreement all around. A day later, I left for San Francisco, having thought harder and learned more than I ever had about what I was supposed to be accomplishing as an English teacher.

Pundits like the syndicated newspaper columnist Debra Saunders are probably celebrating the arrival of these standards. They will ride the document for all it's worth. Critics, after all, make their living by standing on the sidelines hurling comments at the players. But what many people fail to recognize is how beneficial such critics' barbed remarks can be: They invite debate among teachers, discussion in the society at large about what we are supposed to be doing, and how we do it. These standards aspire to do the same thing. If people do not discuss them they fail utterly.

During the past year, I led Socratic discussions for whole afternoons with English teachers from around the country, run weekend retreats with K-12 English teachers in California, given talks with a former NCTE president, Jesse Perry, to audiences made up largely of English-as-a-second-language and special-education teachers. Always contentious, these types of dialogues inevitably inspire rare conversations in which people are called to account for what they mean when they talk about "developing an understanding of and respect for diversity in language that may exist because of cultural differences." This is an important discussion to have in the United States in 1996. So, too, are discussions that probe the persistent, nagging question of "what do we want these standards to accomplish?"

What will the standards accomplish? In my own district, they have served as a primary guide for our new English curriculum. The NCTE-IRA document, in all its various drafts, provided a meaningful framework that gave a structure to our efforts. The standards also provided a map for California Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin's new Challenge curriculum, giving the state department of education a set of principles that yielded a curriculum so good that Ms. Eastin's assistant superintendent, Ruth McKenna, wants to implement the principles in schools statewide.

Vagueness is essential, though. We do not live in a homogeneous society where one curriculum will fit all. And yet, all roads must lead to the same destination: the graduation of fluent, effective writers and readers who can engage in meaningful social dialogue about politics, social issues, and stories while also demonstrating their mastery of skills necessary to succeed in today's workplace.

People who do not understand what the English standards document means should call their child's English teacher and ask him or her. They should contact the English department at the local high school or middle school. If the answer they get is that the teachers there haven't read the standards and don't know what they say, parents could begin the kind of dialogue we need by challenging school officials. One standard we can all agree on is that professionals should be able to explain why they do what they do. Another is that teachers should be participating in the current discussion within their profession, so that they might find, in what seem vague suggestions, clear mandates for their particular community, their school, or their classroom telling them what good English-language-arts education looks like.

Jim Burke serves as the legislative chair for the California Association of Teachers of English and was the chairman of the California Standards Task Force. He is the head of the English department at Burlingame High School in Burlingame, Calif.

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