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Double Standards

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Standards are supposed to put everyone on the same page. But so far, that page has been written so poorly that everyone interprets it differently.

Even worse, the temptation on such large writing teams is to load up documents with each individual's pet concerns, forgetting that standards are supposed to outline essential skills. "A lot of the problem so far has been that the standards-setting process has been about listing every last thing that people think would be neat for children to learn," says Douglas Carnine, the director of the Eugene, Ore.-based National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators. "It's a process that treats inclusiveness as much more important than clarity and specificity."

Standards backers worry that vague, flabby standards will do little good. Standards are supposed to put everyone--students, parents, teachers, curriculum writers, textbook publishers, and test makers--on the same page. But so far, that page has been written so poorly that everyone interprets it differently. Matthew Gandal, who wrote the AFT's report when he was the union's assistant director of educational issues and last month stepped down to join the academic-standards group Achieve, says: "We have built up all these expectations over the years that standards will improve test scores. But if the tests measure things that aren't in the standards, you're setting teachers and everybody else in the schools up for a big fall."

Garner and the others began writing the TAD in May 1996, months before the TEKS writing team would complete its work. They say the idea for an alternative document evolved naturally out of their opposition to the TEKS. "The intent was to share with them what we were thinking and get our ideas on paper so that they weren't just something out there in the air," says Joyce Harrison, a Houston teacher and a member of the state board review committee. "We thought they'd take a serious look if we presented it this way."

The eight dissidents from the TEKS process were the TAD's lead writers, but they turned to sources far and wide for help. "They did their best to build on the best that was already out there," says Gandal, who heard from Garner a number of times as the TAD took shape. "They didn't care that they were taking from what others had done. They were out to produce the best document they could."

Some of the TAD was modeled on Virginia's standards--standards that have drawn praise for their clarity and precision but scorn from some educators who claim they will encourage "back to basics" teaching and rote learning. When working on standards for the early grades, the teachers relied on research by G. Reid Lyon of the National Institutes of Health and Barbara Foorman at the University of Houston--research that indicates that many children cannot learn to read naturally and need explicit phonics instruction. Garner also solicited comments and edits from several other experts, including Marilyn Jager Adams, the author of the widely acclaimed Beginning To Read and one of the country's top reading experts.

The eight dissidents from the TEKS process were the TAD's lead writers, but they turned to sources far and wide for help.

In addition to all their credentialed help, Garner and the others wanted a view from the trenches. They sent drafts to top-performing districts and schools across Texas soliciting comments and revisions, and Garner turned to friends and colleagues at Midway High School, who spent hours reviewing and sharpening the TAD.

In all, Garner estimates that 50 classroom teachers have their fingerprints on the document. Many are longtime teachers, and they've seen state lawmakers and bureaucrats roll out initiative after initiative to great fanfare. In the TAD, however, they had a chance to say what they--the teachers--think it takes to improve learning. Few of the teachers who worked on the TAD have their names on it, but the document carries their thoughts, their expertise, and, in some cases, their very words. And those words now had a chance of becoming policy. "We have been beaten up with everybody's new fad," says Katherine Hahn, an English teacher at Midway High who helped write the TAD. "Some new research comes out, an entire curriculum is based on it, and in two years, we find out we know more now, so toss that. The teachers are just going, 'Oh my gosh, just hand me another notebook this thick and tell me what I have to do. Don't give me any credit for knowing my kids, knowing what I'm supposed to do, and for knowing my field.'

"Our voices are getting lost in the wilderness. But who is out here in the trenches doing this? Who do you entrust our children to? And here, we are saying, 'Wait, we need this.' And it's with one voice."

Garner and the TAD group unveiled their handiwork in October 1996 at a news conference at an Austin hotel. Their document, they told the gathered media, corrected the disastrous flaws of the TEKS. First and foremost, it was strongly rooted in teaching phonics and basic grammar. Under their plan, instruction in the alphabet and the more than 40 sounds of the English language would begin in the state's prekindergarten programs, and 1st graders struggling with phonemic awareness by the second semester would get one-on-one help--an intervention many researchers believe is critical at that age.

The document was organized grade by grade, with skills and complexity advancing from one level to the next in what Garner at one point called "a rope bridge across the chasm of ignorance." Perhaps the TAD's most controversial element, however, was its extensive lists of suggested readings, which aimed to introduce 2nd graders to American myths and tall tales, 7th graders to such classics as The Call of the Wild and Johnny Tremain, and 12th graders to British literature ranging from Beowulf to Yeats.

The reading lists also included some biblical texts--a red flag to those convinced that the document was a product of the religious right. TAD members eventually stripped some of the selections to answer the criticism, but they defended others as key to understanding the great works of literature. "Those biblical selections have allusions that are going to be in all the major works," says Betsy Berry, another English teacher at Midway. "I have students that when I teach Paradise Lost, they've never heard the story of Adam and Eve. Never heard it."

"In my opinion, that document was a slap in the face to the members of the writing team who put such effort into the original text."

Joseph Rubin,
co-chairman,
TEKS writing team

Ballard and other conservative members of the state board immediately embraced the TAD. They had followed the work of Garner's group closely--indeed, four TAD members represented them on the state board review committee--and now they were pleased to have something concrete to offer in opposition to the TEKS.

Leaders of the TEKS writing team, meanwhile, remembered that Garner, at her first meeting, had said she might write a "minority" report. Seeing how the conservatives now cheered the TAD, they speculated that she had come to the committee intending to write a competing document. "In my opinion, that document was a slap in the face to the members of the writing team who put such effort into the original text," says co-chairman Joseph Rubin. "I and other members on the writing team heard in their criticism of our work contempt for the teacher. Which is strange, since Mrs. Garner and some of them are teachers, and which makes me think that there are external influences working on her."

By last spring Garner had solicited--and received--endorsements from big-name education scholars. Sandra Stotsky, the author of the Fordham Foundation's report, praised the TAD "as a model for the rest of the country." E.D. Hirsch declined to endorse the entire TAD, but he praised its reading lists, its grade-by-grade structure, and its grammar sequence. "On these three points," he wrote to Garner, "your document is superior to the [TEKS], and I would hope that your excellent work in these areas will find its way into the final document."

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