Double Standards

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Indeed, it wasn't long before Garner discovered that her convictions were not exactly popular on the team. According to the teacher, the group was patterning its effort on the ill-fated work of the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English. Those standards, Garner believed, were infused with the whole-language notion that children learn the fundamentals of reading naturally and without phonics instruction in letter-sound relationships. Garner had arrived at these first meetings armed with research to argue that the team must require every teacher in the state to teach "phonemic awareness," or the sounds that make up language, as well as other phonics skills.

Although the team's leaders told Garner there was simply no time for her to present the research, she soon concluded that hers was a message they didn't want heard. The group was stacked with whole-language advocates, she decided, and her views were being stifled purposely in the search for consensus. In a letter to a Texas Education Agency official working with the team, she described consensus building as "a type of psychological manipulation" that forces individuals "to adopt the 'group' mind-set as being more important than verbalizing firmly held, personal convictions."

This handful of teacher-critics has become such a nuisance that even the governor has taken a swat at them.

The writing team's leaders paint a different picture of the meetings. Their document never embraced whole-language strategies, they say; the group studied a large body of research from a variety of sources. Garner was simply unyielding in her views, says Shirley Wright, a co-chairwoman of the group. "I don't know if there was any more that we could have done. I guess if you come to a committee such as this with an agenda, it makes it hard to hear what others have to say."

Although a few members of the writing team backed Garner, she found more allies on the state board review committee, which began meeting in February 1996. Garner knew at least two of that group's 40 or so members--Pat Waterman, chairwoman of the English department at Midway High, and Naoma Huff, a junior college teacher and the wife of one of Garner's college professors--and she found them equally disturbed by the early TEKS drafts. Soon, the three were comparing notes with others they heard grumbling about the process.

These dissenters had many objections. First, they wanted the document to require that grammar, phonics, phonemic awareness, and vocabulary be systematically and directly taught in the early grades. Research had ended the language wars years ago, they argued, with whole-language the hands-down loser. Yet early drafts of the English TEKS did not even mention the alphabet.

Second, Garner and her group fought the document's format. The first drafts of the English TEKS grouped standards by grade clusters, essentially creating one set of standards for K-3 students, another for 4th through 8th graders, and another for high schoolers. Garner and her cohorts, meanwhile, pressed for grade-specific standards, arguing that teachers and students must walk into the class every fall knowing exactly what's expected of them by the school year's end.

Third, Garner's group lobbied to include lists of recommended books and authors that children should read. Children must read age-appropriate material, they argued, and teachers need a guide to the seminal works in literature.

Many of the brickbats hurled at the Texas standards echo the criticism of English standards in other states.

And finally, Garner and the others claimed that the document's writing was so jargon-filled and abstract as to make it indecipherable. A February 1996 draft, for example, stated that the high school student "establishes and adjusts both immediate and overarching purposes for reading." Such obtuse language, Garner's group argued, would confuse not only teachers and parents but also curriculum writers and testmakers. Indeed, because results from Texas' statewide tests are figured into a teacher's performance evaluation, Garner and her group argued that the TEKS had to be crystal clear so that teachers knew exactly what they were going to be held accountable for. "As teachers, we are evaluated on how clear and how specific our goals are," explains Pat Waterman. "And I feel that anything directed from the state ought to be very clear and very specific as well so that teachers know exactly what they should teach."

Over time, the document moved in the direction Garner's group pushed. A grade-by-grade format was adopted--albeit, with language repeated at times almost verbatim from grade to grade--and sections on phonemic awareness were beefed up. But the writing team balked at requiring extensive grammar or phonics work, arguing that such mandates would tie the hands of educators who were successful with other reading-instruction strategies. "We have to have a way to reach all children in Texas, and we have to teach a lot of children who don't speak English," says Shirley Wright. "We were never saying those things weren't important. But don't spell out every grammar rule and every punctuation rule or become so obsessed with it that the child doesn't have a chance to learn another way."

By last fall, however, Garner and the other dissenters found that their chorus of criticism had a few more voices. Indeed, the standards were being trashed by critics from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Donna Ballard, a back-to-basics advocate and a leader of the six-member, arch-conservative faction on the state board of education, ripped the TEKS for slighting phonics instruction. Meanwhile, John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, called the TEKS "bureaucratic gobbledygook" and cited passages from the English standards as proof.

Governor Bush delivered the harshest criticism in a November speech to the state's business leaders. Bush aimed his barbs at the standards in all subjects, but he was particularly agitated over a passage from the English TEKS stating that students would be expected to analyze "the influence of the speaker's verbal and nonverbal behaviors on the listener's perception and acceptance or rejection of the message."

"I don't know what that means,'' he told his audience. "Moreover, I don't know how you test a child on that sentence. We must state plainly what we want students to know and when we want them to know it. No touchy-feely essays or learning by osmosis. No holding hands until the karma is right. Just straightforward lists of state expectations.

"I intend to make sure that the TEKS is fundamental education," he added. "If it ends up with mush in there, I won't be satisfied."

Many of the brickbats hurled at the TEKS echo the criticism of English standards in other states. The conservative Fordham Foundation and the liberal American Federation of Teachers have done the most exhaustive studies of states' work. The groups do not agree on everything--the report by the Washington, D.C.-based Fordham Foundation, for example, argues that English standards should require explicit and systematic instruction in decoding skills, while the AFT's does not. But both conclude that most state standards are too vague and too long. "The question I kept coming to was: How did these standards get by so many people when they say so little?" says Sandra Stotsky, author of the Fordham report and a Harvard University researcher.

'As teachers, we are evaluated on how clear and how specific our goals are. And I feel that anything directed from the state ought to be very clear and very specific as well.'

Pat Waterman,

There are many answers. For one, it's clear that with standards, beauty is in the eye of the beholder: What the Fordham Foundation and the AFT consider strengths in standards are viewed by some as weaknesses. Some states, for example, argue that detailed standards make curriculum "teacher proof" and interfere with local control of schools. Similarly, the overwhelming majority of states haven't included lists of suggested readings in their English standards; although both the Fordham Foundation and the AFT advocate such lists, state officials counter by genuflecting at the shrine of local control and arguing that individual communities should decide what their children read.

Still, it's clear that some standards are poorly written, convoluted, and bloated. Sometimes, disagreements over politics and ideology have made hash of the document's language. But many standards-writing processes are simply mishandled. Some states have viewed the task as an exercise in democracy and assembled mammoth writing teams of individuals selected purposely to represent different viewpoints. In such large groups, "you have to go to the lowest common denominator and fuzz the language up," says Chester Finn, president of the Fordham Foundation and a former education official in the Reagan administration. "You have to make something incredibly general to get everyone to say, 'Yes.' If I say, for example, 'Tonight's menu in the District of Columbia is food,' everyone will be happy. But if I say, 'You can have chicken,' there'll be some people upset about that."

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