Sampler of Avenues to English Standards Offered

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Debate among English educators last week about standards that are being developed for what students should know and be able to do in that subject hinted at the complexity of the task.

Academic standards for the study of English are being developed by the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association, and the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois with $1.8 million in federal funds.

When the three-year grant for the project was announced in October 1992, federal officials predicted that English would be the most difficult of all the subject areas in which to develop student-achievement standards.

For many years, English educators have bitterly debated the best way to teach reading and argued over the desirability of a standard literary canon.

Moreover, the profession had long debated whether English educators should become involved in any kind of national standards-setting effort.

Some of that wariness over standards was still in evidence when 5,500 English educators met for the annual conference of the N.C.T.E., held here from Nov. 17-22.

For the most part, however, the questions have moved from whether to have standards to how best to do it. And the big pedagogical debates, which may yet come, were edged aside for now in favor of discussion on a range of complicated issues centering on the language and structure of the standards themselves.

"I'm pleased that we are having debate on the document rather than on whether we should be doing it,'' said Miles Myers, the N.C.T.E.'s executive director. "These are preliminaries to deeper discussions.''

Work in Progress

Thus far, the standards group has put together what it calls a sampler of its work for review within the field. Those materials include some examples of standards, vignettes describing how those standards might be reflected in real classrooms, and a preamble setting out guiding principles for the project.

Sample standards for public review will be completed early next year.

More than some other disciplines, the English standards are expected to make extensive use of classroom vignettes.

Rather than having separate standards for each level of schooling--elementary, middle, and high school--the project will set one standard for all three levels and employ vignettes to illustrate the standards at each level.

"We're the part of the curriculum where story is a way of knowing,'' said Janet Emig, the chairwoman of the panel and an English professor emeritus at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

As envisioned now, the standards would fall into three broad areas--reading, writing, and oral language.

But media educators who attended last week's meeting complained that their specialty was excluded from that configuration.

"We are not talking about using media to achieve objectives in reading and writing,'' said Robert E. Shafer, a professor emeritus of English at Arizona State University and a member of the N.C.T.E.'s media commission. "We are talking about the study of media as institutions, and we do not think it's appropriate that the standards project seems to be reducing that out of the curriculum.''

Other critics said that the standards failed to provide a full treatment of the role students' ethnic and cultural differences play in learning.

In a letter to the standards group, the N.C.T.E.'s commission on reading suggested that several vignettes might be used to illustrate the multiple perspectives of students from various ethnic groups and called for replacing the terms "standard English'' in the document with "privileged dialect.''

Other educators, however, cautioned against such moves.

"Let's not get caught up too much in these political kinds of things,'' said Elaine Cockrell, the chairwoman of a junior high school English department in Washington state. "The focus should be: Does it speak to students' learning first?''

Politically Correct?

The document's preamble, Ms. Cockrell pointed out, already focuses on cultural issues.

It notes, for example, that differences among students must be recognized and valued, that teachers should use students' home languages and experiences as a bridge to further learning, and that teachers, working with families and communities, should incorporate "local and multiple values'' into what is taught in the classroom.

"There's an overemphasis on political correctness,'' she said.

One educator warned against including language in the document that might prove controversial when educators try to implement standards in their communities.

"The word 'values' is red-flag number one, and it sticks 10 feet up in the air,'' said Lory Nels Johnson, an English/language-arts coordinator for the Iowa education department.

Standards-developers were also urged to avoid the use of "educationese'' and "Englishese'' in the standards to make them clearer to those outside the profession.

The English-standards project is among the last of eight federally funded efforts to set subject-matter standards for student learning. All of the projects grew out of the national education goals set by President Bush and the nation's governors in early 1990.

Vol. 13, Issue 13

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