Spanning spectrum of American education. `Basic School' idea puts early focus on language

IMPROVING American education - to the ends of both a sharper economy and a more humane society - is not a task that can wait until high school or college, Ernest L. Boyer says. It must begin during the earliest years of schooling. Dr. Boyer, who in a 1983 survey of top school and college officials was named the ``leading educator in America,'' recently shared with the Monitor his proposal to radically change primary schooling in America. His plan would consolidate the first three years of school into a single, language-intensive, three-year program called ``The Basic School.'' The current system, Boyer says, where children advance through three grade levels, taking classes in 50-minute increments, ``imposes an unnatural expectancy of readiness'' upon children and also ``fragments'' learning. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, bases his ideas on a major Carnegie study titled ``The Early Years,'' due out late next year.

The ``Basic School'' would focus almost exclusively on reading, writing, and speaking. The one other main subject would be math - familiarity with number systems - stressed as ``another language.'' Children would be immersed - ``bathed,'' as Boyer puts it - in three years of stories, myths, traditions, legends, verbal play, reading and writing assignments, and vocabulary work. They would learn how to read well and become familiar with the relationship between words, concepts, and ideas in a rich, sustained way, he believes.

Language, says Boyer, is the most fundamental element of education, but ``we currently trivialize it by offering a 50-minute class called `language skills' - as though it were no more important than any other class.'' While children can easily afford to miss social studies or biology in the first three grades, Boyer feels this is not true for reading and writing. Studies show that children who fall behind in language skills during their early years are more apt to drop out of school and are less employable later on.

In Boyer's view, early and excellent language proficiency is important for three main reasons: First, it is ``the key'' to all other learning, the means by which other subjects are apprehended well or poorly. Second, language and thought are closely related, says Boyer. Clear and precise thinking owes a great deal to one's ability to work with ideas and concepts, using words. Language is a system of symbols allowing one to make distinctions, both subtle and obvious. Third, many children establish their social and individual identity through language. They understand themselves more or less broadly, as they are given more or less opportunity to use thoughts based on a rich language experience, Boyer says.

For these reasons, Boyer claims that ``if schools achieve no other one thing than to make it possible for children to use the symbol system of language, we will have revolutionized education.''

Contrariwise, he says, if we fail to better educate children in this way at a time when the United States, as a post-industrial nation, is in the midst of an ``information age,'' we will be ``putting a large portion of the population in economic and social jeopardy.''

The intensive ``Basic School,'' with sharp and clear accountability measures, will work as well in inner-city schools (``where they are more needed'') as in suburban districts, Boyer says. Students will acquire enormous background knowledge through reading, which they can apply later to formal subjects.

In his recent study of colleges, Boyer called language ``the crucial connection,'' and put it at the heart of his ``integrated'' general education curricula.

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