WASHINGTON--Completing the federal list of projects aimed at setting national curriculum standards in core subject areas, Education Department officials announced last week that they have awarded a $360,542 grant to develop English standards by 1994.
The one-year grant was awarded to a consortium made up of the International Reading Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois at Champaign.
The groups will work together to develop national standards for what all precollegiate students should “know and be able to do’’ in English--an area that encompasses reading, composition, oral communications, and literature.
The field, however, is among the most contentious in the school curriculum. And representatives of the groups involved in the standards-setting process acknowledged that their task will not be easy.
“It’s not accidental that English is last,’' said Diane S. Ravitch, the department’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement. “It’s clearly going to be the most difficult process and the most difficult field.’'
One of the biggest issues the group will face centers on the debate now raging over the best way to teach young children to read.
Some educators favor a “whole language’’ approach that emphasizes the use of literature in class; others stress the teaching of phonics, or the relationship between symbols and sounds, in teaching reading. (See Education Week, March 21, 1990.)
“What we’re trying to do,’' said Elizabeth Mandel-Glazer, the vice president of the reading association, “is to create something open enough so that teachers and kids can fall into the philosophy that helps them become better readers and writers.’'
Debate is also expected over how the literary canon should be addressed in the standards.
The de facto literary canon now taught in schools, critics have said, has traditionally been dominated by the works of “dead, white males’’ and has excluded the voices of women and members of minority groups.
“The advantage of having a literary canon is that it spells out the kinds of texts you want people to know,’' said Alan Farstrup, the executive director of the reading association. “The disadvantage is that it becomes too rigid.’'
“If there is a canon,’' added James E. Davis, the president of the English teachers’ group, “it’s going to be a big one.’'
A key to resolving such issues will be the structure of the standards themselves and of the standards-setting process, the project’s co-directors said.
They said the standards, although based on research, will be flexible and “sensitive to and responsive to’’ the needs of the local communities where they are taught. They will also include vignettes to “provide examples of what ought to be going on in classrooms,’' they explained.
Outgrowth of Goals
A 25-member governing board, with representatives from both within and outside the field, will oversee the effort.
The board, which has not yet been named, will be made up of English and reading professionals, other educators, business representatives, communications professionals, and members of the general public.
Smaller task forces, whose members represent diverse perspectives within literature, writing, reading, and oral communications, will draft the standards.
The standards project is an outgrowth of the education goals adopted by President Bush and the nation’s governors in 1990. The goals call for the development of “world class’’ standards in five academic subjects--mathematics, science, English, history, and geography.
Mathematics standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics are already being used in 40 states. And efforts are under way, supported by the Education Department and other federal agencies, to develop standards in science, history, geography, and the arts.
The National Council for the Social Studies this month also announced an independent effort to craft standards in that subject. (See Education Week, Oct. 13, 1992.)
Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said the English-standards effort was also prompted by students’ declining scores on the verbal portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, employers’ dissatisfaction with young employees’ communication skills, and the influx of non-English-speaking immigrants to the United States.
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 1992 edition of Education Week as E.D. Awards Grant for Last of Standards Projects, in English