Where the Debate About English Standards Goes Wrong

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As Tommy Lasorda said, paraphrasing Emerson, "Never argue with anyone who buys ink by the gallon." So, not having enough ink for an argument, I have three quibbles about the quality of public discourse these days around the issue of English standards. The first problem is the deception that curriculum standards are a no-cost solution for improving the reading and writing of the nation's youths. Some policy folks have become downright angry at the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association for warning that standards will not work without safe schools, access to a computer for every K-12 student, a school library, adequate supplies, and staff development (see Chapter 1 of "Standards for English Language Arts"). In this election year, very few op-ed and policy folks can excite their audiences with the boring fact that literacy education costs money--that, for instance, the widespread closing of K-12 school libraries is a national disgrace. Thus, on money, a nearly complete silence.

The second problem in the public discourse on standards is the attention-driven desire of many op-ed and policy folks to turn every education issue into a simple controversy over extremes. What they relish in the debate over English standards is the angry and confused discourse about language-for-non-native-speakers as English-only vs. bilingual help, reading as phonics vs. whole language, literature as universal man vs. pluralism or ethnic identity, and writing as product vs. process. Can you believe it? Politicians and editorial writers actually get space with this stuff. Because the NCTE and the IRA refused to accept these simple dichotomies as indicators of high or low achievement in English, several op-ed and policy folks attacked the standards for being vague. Some columnists simply made up their own fantasies, one charging that the standards recommend "keeping" students in bilingual programs. No such recommendation appears in the document. Another columnist said that the NCTE proposed dropping "English" from its name. Never happened. Others argued that the NCTE and the IRA "were sidestepping the issue" when they proposed that reading required an interaction of part and whole, sound and sense, not just drills on phonics; that literature required an examination of the necessary interdependence of the individual, various affiliations, and the civic community, not just an examination of differences; and that writing required an understanding of both processes and products. The editorial board of The New York Times concluded that the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association must be afraid of controversy, otherwise the two groups would have picked one side. In fact, the NCTE and the IRA considered their positions not only more truthful but also quite controversial.

The third problem in the public discourse on English standards has been the widely promoted hallucination of benchmarking, which is a grade-level score on some kind of test. It is important to remember that we have been benchmarking on machine-scored, multiple-choice tests since the 1920s, when schools adopted the old basic-literacy formulation. Every local paper reports how many students are above or below the 4th-grade level or benchmark in reading. This benchmark is the statistical mean measured by the multiple-choice, machine-scored test adopted by the state and/or local school district. But the "Standards for the English Language Arts" introduces a new literacy for the nation's consideration, a literacy which cannot be entirely or even substantially measured by these machine-scored tests. The NCTE-IRA English standards emphasize the importance of interpretation and criticism in reading, not just memorizing names and places, and the document emphasizes the importance of writing whole pieces, not just filling in the slots on a grammar drill. Yes, learning grammar and remembering basic knowledge are still important. But the new literacy means more than that. It means basics-plus, not just traditional basics.

In the debate over English standards during the last two months, policy and op-ed folks have heaped misplaced praise on behavioral benchmarks based on the old literacy of machine-scored tests. Even President Clinton at the recent summit of governors and business leaders warned that " ... if you want to measure reading and writing, you will not be able just to have a multiple-choice test which can be graded by a machine." In other words, the results of machine-scored tests are inadequate benchmarks for performance in basics-plus English. Teachers of English are bemused by one district benchmark, produced by the Council for Basic Education, which says that all students will have mastered the areas of spelling and punctuation by the end of 4th grade.

Another nationally cited district benchmark specifies that all "grammar problems" will be solved by 8th grade. But in a letter to The New York Times, Edward McCamy points out that Richard Klein, an op-ed writer for the Times, fails this benchmark in his own critique of the standards because he uses the construction "do like the French" (see below), which is a "nonstandard" use of "like" as a conjunction (The New York Times, March 24, 1996). A widely touted state benchmark announces that the use of "correct modifiers" will be learned by the end of 4th grade, and another says that students must have read 50 books by 8th grade. Which 50? A critical reading of Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter ought to count for more than a quick reading of two Goosebumps books. And do "correct modifiers" cease to be an issue after 4th grade? Of course not. Finally, there is the celebrated state benchmark which proposes to teach mastery of the narrative by the end of elementary school, mastery of comparison-contrast by the end of middle school, and mastery of persuasion by the end of high school. This will not work.

The names of English courses in secondary school should give us a clue about the problem of grade-level benchmarks in English, at least as they are now being written in the examples above. Math has discrete categories of subjects in schools: general math, algebra, geometry, statistics, trigonometry, calculus--each offered at different grade levels. English has English IA, English IB, English II, English III, American literature, senior English, or English IV. Why are course titles in English roughly the same? The reason is that English is a subject with an evolutionary form in schools, not a categorical form. One learns the beginning narrative form of story in elementary schools, but by high school one is learning the many evolving forms of narrative--the history of a place, the academic biography, novels as varied as Moby Dick and Great Expectations. Narrative does not stop in elementary school. So, too, punctuation problems change and evolve as sentences and paragraphs get longer. Punctuation problems do not cease in elementary or middle school. Therefore, as teacher research has shown many times, the categorical benchmarks above, based as they are on machine-scored tests, will not work in basic-plus English. We need benchmarks that recognize the evolutionary nature of growth in English.

In addition, the benchmarks of basics-plus English require that "knowledge about" and "knowledge how" must be combined (see Chapter 2 of "Standards for English Language Arts"). We can no longer rely solely on the benchmarks of machine-scored tests in which knowledge of facts and explicit rules was sufficient. Those tests only tell part of the story of what students should know and be able to do. Knowing the parts of a narrative is not equivalent to knowing how to write or to read one, and knowing subject-verb agreement is not equivalent to knowing how to write a sentence. We are only beginning to learn how to observe levels of growth in actual writing, in range and depth of reading, and in responses to literature. Without fanfare or media attention, some K-12 teachers and university researchers have begun to describe performance in the new literacy, but much remains to be done. Those who claim they have in hand an honor roll of basics-plus benchmarks in English at each grade level are selling snake oil, 1990s style.

Does this mean that the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association have no examples of book lists and no examples of vocabulary and sentence learning at different grade levels? Of course not. The NCTE and the IRA have published separate volumes describing standards in practice in the English-language-arts classroom. We have almost a hundred books with everything from grade-level book lists to grade-level lessons on the best books in English. But these exemplars of standards in practice, including the teaching of particular books, were published separately to make clear that they were not grade-level benchmarks of student performance or even regulatory mandates of lessons.

If the English-language-arts standards are not benchmarks, what are they? They are curriculum principles designed to describe a new form of literacy, a literacy based on new needs in the workplace, civic life, and personal growth. These principles hit the mark for the editorial board of The Minneapolis Star Tribune:

"Conservative groups are annoyed by positive references to multicultural perspectives and an endorsement of bilingual education. A senior adviser of the U.S. Department of Education has decried the absence of measurable objectives. ...

"These complaints missed the mark. But taken together, they constitute a backhand endorsement. If these are the sharpest barbs that can be hurled at the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English, then the teachers must have done a pretty good job."

The March 16, 1996, editorial concludes that, indeed, the two groups have done a good job: "In articulating the elements of literacy and sound general strategies for achieving it, they have given the nation a useful starting point and a commendable set of ultimate goals."

But the standards missed the mark for Richard Klein in The New York Times: "[I]f we are going to set standards for teaching the national language, why not do like the French, with their long history of central government control of education. Give teachers a list of books; prescribe every detail of the curriculum, like the French do, down to the last lyric poem" (The New York Times, March 18, 1996). Instead of mandating detailed standards "down to the last lyric poem," the NCTE and the IRA decided to focus their standards document on the more fundamental issue of what kind of literacy is needed for the 21st century.

What is this new literacy of basics-plus in English? Here are some of its features, contrasted with the features of the old literacy (see Chapter 3 of the standards):

  • A combination of collaborative and individual work, not just individual work.
  • The use of many forms of technology (computers, videodiscs), not just paper and pencil.
  • An emphasis on interpretation, criticism, and knowing and using basic information, not just remembering and repeating.
  • A critical understanding of print materials and of film, TV, and other nonprint media, not just memorization of information in print materials alone.
  • An emphasis on inquiry and the use of many different sources of information, not just fill-in-the-blank answers to questions using the district textbook.
  • The reading of several works of literature as representations of interactions across traditional and contemporary experiences, not just the reading of one work at a time as a universal experience.
  • An emphasis on writing as both communication skills and an activity for thinking, not just as a set of isolated mechanical skills.

Readers who want to explore these issues for themselves should order "Standards for the English Language Arts" from the NCTE (1111 W. Kenyon Road, Urbana, Ill. 61801) or from the IRA (800 Barksdale Road, P.O. Box 8139, Newark, Del. 19714). For teachers, the NCTE also has the "Standards in Practice" series, the "Standards Consensus Series," and, incidentally, two recent books on teaching Shakespeare, one for elementary school and another for secondary. For parents, we have a guide for the new standards.

The message in these documents is clear: Creating simple dichotomies and measuring only small bits of behavior is a misguided way to teach English today. The challenges of composition and the wisdom of Charlotte's Web and "King Lear" cannot survive such treatment. We owe to our students and to our subject the survival of both the challenges and the wisdom.

Vol. 15, Issue 34, Pages 35, 48

Published in Print: May 15, 1996, as Where the Debate About English Standards Goes Wrong
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