Vague Guide on English

THE slow journey toward credible national educational standards for the US continues, with occasional detours and engine trouble.

The latter was evident in the recently publicized national guidelines for English curricula put together by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association. Their work is laudable in intent but too vague and generalized.

An earlier attempt at English standards under the federal Goals 2000 program fumed and sputtered. The task was finally handed over to the above two organizations which have, at the least, managed to come up with highly noncontroversial suggestions that students read widely, learn different "strategies" for writing, be attentive to different audiences, and so on.

Far be it from anyone involved in this work under the aegis of government to suggest a reading list, for instance. Specifics breed conflict, and perhaps the kind of political onslaught that greeted national history standards a year and a half ago.

More hopeful are foundation-funded efforts of New Standards, a collaboration of states, urban school districts, University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center, and the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy. The schools involved embrace almost half the nation's elementary and secondary students.

Earlier this year, New Standards released drafts of performance standards for math, English, science, and applied learning. That last area includes skills not normally part of the curriculum but important to later job prospects, such as ability to work within a group and to think in terms of systems. The drafts now are under consultation with educators, which will lead to final versions by next fall.

New Standards also plans to publish, with Harcourt Brace, exams and scoring guides to go with its English and math standards. A means of uniformly testing compliance is integral to workable standards, as are examples of successful student work to illustrate how standards can be met.

There's action on other fronts too. The National Council for History Education just launched a campaign to push for much stronger instruction (at least four full years of history instruction in Grades 7 through 12) and better training for history teachers.

Strengthening the country's academic core demands ongoing commitments at all levels of government and within communities. Not least, it demands a hard look at the school day to determine what's essential for this journey and what's tangential. Yes, disagreements will arise, but some agreed-upon standards will make it much clearer where to draw that line.

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