What should a student competent in English know and be able to do?
After three years of internal debate–and against a backdrop of growing political division over national education goals–two English teachers’ organizations on Monday offered a set of national standards described as their profession’s vision of 21st century literacy.
The 130-page document is not prescriptive by design–that is, it does not explicitly tell parents and educators what books every high school senior should have read or what kind of writing every fifth-grader should be able to produce.
“This is a vision . . . not a national curriculum,” said Carol Jago of the National Council of Teachers of English, one of the groups that devised the guidelines.
But the proposed standards were immediately panned by federal officials and education leaders as being too vague and lacking the concrete benchmarks that help parents ascertain how well their children–and their schools–perform. “It doesn’t result in anything that is clearly measurable,” said Michael Cohen, senior advisor to U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley.
Some reading experts were disappointed that the standards fail to stress phonics as the most powerful way to teach young children how to identify words. And conservative critics of the national standards movement had harsh words for the references to multiculturalism and apparent endorsement of bilingual education.
“This is the history scenario all over again,” said Jeanne Allen of the conservative Washington-based Center for Education Reform, referring to the uproar from the political right that followed the release of national history standards two years ago. “There seems to be a lot of political correctness throughout the whole document.”
The English standards, like the history standards, have had a troubled history. Federal funding for the project was yanked by the Clinton administration two years ago because of disagreements over the content. The National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Assn., the other group involved in drafting the standards, went ahead on their own, spending $ 1 million to produce the document to be unveiled in Washington today.
The standards were due out last year, but debate within the English teaching profession over a number of issues delayed their release. Some of the profession’s most prominent members could not even agree that national standards were necessary. The standards were submitted to an extensive–some would say excessive–process of field review, critiqued by more than 2,500 English teachers and education agencies and groups.
Beverly Ann Chin, president of the National Council of Teachers of English, said the standards “respect the traditional values of English teaching and learning–knowing the basics, and learning to communicate fluently and capably in standard English.”
But, she said, they also reflect “social and technological changes” that have altered the way people use language to communicate and derive meaning from print, such as books and newspapers, and visual media, such as movies and television.
The document offers 12 recommendations, many of which make common-sense statements about what all students should strive for in the language arts of reading, writing, listening and speaking.
The first, for instance, states that students should be exposed to a wide range of print and non-print texts, including fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
Other guidelines recommend that students be encouraged to adapt their use of language for various audiences–they should, for example, be able to write in a diary, draft a letter to the editor, compose and send e-mail, as well as answer essay questions for school.
The standards also make frequent mention of multicultural issues. The document says one purpose of reading, for instance, is to gain understanding of the cultures of the United States and the world. They also say that students should develop understanding of and respect for “diversity in language use” that may exist because of cultural differences, in part because today’s classroom reflects the nation’s changing makeup.
One of the standards also makes a strong statement in support of bilingual education, a controversial approach that calls for teaching students in their primary language before making the transition to all-English instruction.
“Students whose first language is not English are more likely to achieve academic success in English in settings where their primary language is nurtured,” the standards say. ” . . . There is an urgent need for programs that enable students who speak other languages to attain proficiency in English while at the same time providing them the support they need to continue developing competency in their first language.”
“This means basically that we support bridge programs between the first language and English,” said Miles Myers, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English.
“But the point of the public schools is to give children power in English so they can be productive workers. There isn’t any doubt about our goal.”
Allen, of the Center for Education Reform, said this standard does not reflect the wishes of an increasingly vocal segment of parents in Latino communities. “Parents do not want bilingual education,” she said. “They want their children to learn to read and write in the English language first.”
The standards also attempt to sidestep recent controversies over the best way to teach reading–whether to embrace the so-called whole language approach popular over the last decade or return to phonics-centered instruction.
Whole language asserts that most children will figure out the sounds of letters with little direct or systematic instruction.
That approach was largely rejected last fall by the California Reading Task Force, which said beginning reading instruction in the state had reached a crisis and that children needed more instruction and practice in the sounds of letters, letter blends, syllable formation and other aspects of the language.
The standards do mention the value of teaching children the sounds of letters, but only as one of several, equally valuable strategies for reading words.
Times education writer Richard Lee Colvin contributed to this story.
New English Standards
Excerpts of national standards guiding what students should study in the language arts, as proposed Monday by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Assn., say students should:
* Read a wide range of texts to build an understanding of the texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment.
* Read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions of human experience.
* Apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts; draw on their . . . experience, interactions with other readers and writers and knowledge of word meaning.
* Adjust their use of spoken, written and visual language to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
* Employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
* Apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions, media techniques, figurative language and genre to create, critique and discuss print and non-print texts.
* Conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems.
* Use a variety of technological and informational resources to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
* Develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions and social roles.
* If their first language is not English , make use of their first language to develop competency in the English language arts and to develop understanding of content across the curriculum.
* Participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
* Use spoken, written and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion and the exchange of information).