HOW well kids read and write - as well as how familiar they are with good books - are the focus of a furor over the appearance of new guidelines for teaching English in America's schools.
The long-awaited "Standards for the English Language Arts," the last of its kind among the major academic disciplines, is likely to have a direct impact on schoolchildren for many years, establishing a national model to judge progress.
The standards come at a time of mounting public pressure for tougher classroom standards, as typified by the recent governors' conference on school reform. But far from encouraging observers about the potential for change, the report has already been denounced as bureaucratic mush by everyone from media pundits to an adviser to the US secretary of education, whose office withdrew its funding from the project, citing vagueness of content.
The guidelines, are, in fact, quite broad. They don't call for reading Tom Sawyer in seventh grade or diagramming sentences in fifth grade. What they do propose is more general: By the end of high school, for example, students should have read from a "wide range of literature from many periods in many genres" and be able to use computers and video to "create and communicate knowledge."
The critics claim the guidelines lack exactly the kind of explicit content and rigorous expectations - like a reading list or "benchmark" levels of competency determined by testing - needed in today's public schools. Yet a wide range of educators and other specialists stoutly defend the guidelines as a realistic blueprint that reflects new research on how kids learn, calling it a flexible document that can be fleshed out by local school districts.
Issued by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the International Reading Association (IRA), the report includes a list of 12 major elements of a proper education in English language arts. (See box, right).
The problem is symbolized by the very syntax of the document, say many people, who cite bureaucratese in phrases like "writing process elements."
And where are the "shoulds" and "musts," they challenge? Without such imperatives, the list and the book it appears in sound like a politically correct account of existing practices rather than a set of standards, they say.
"If you're going to have standards, they should be decipherable and specific enough to know that students, wherever they are in school, have met them. If they're this vague you really can't tell," says Cynthia Betances of the Council for Basic Education, a Washington-based group pushing for tougher classroom standards.
"There are no benchmarks and no checkpoints to see how kids are doing relative to those standards," she says. "We need to know where kids should be at the fourth-grade level, the eighth, the 12th. Without 'markers,' we don't know what we should be looking for along the way, to avoid arriving at the end of school and discovering we haven't made it."
Ms. Betances, who will be writing the council's review of the new standards in the May edition of its monthly publication, Basic Education, says these omissions do a disservice to students. Crucial, she says, are tests of competency to determine where extra help is needed, as well as greater specificity that won't get diluted at the local level.
The report's defenders counter by arguing that the standards were written "for the profession, by the profession," as the subtitle states. Words like "process" mean something specific to an experienced teacher, they point out. And they say the document had to be flexible enough to accommodate a wide spectrum of local interests. "We had 'should' and 'must' in there, and the teachers felt they wanted those words put in at the local level," says NCTE associate director Karen Smith.
But even without the imperatives, she says, the document makes clear these statements are intended as specific criteria. "We wanted to pull together what we call a 'shared vision' of what kids should actually know when they graduate from high school. Over three years, we had thousands of teachers actually critique document drafts."
One of the people at those meetings was Benita Chambers, who recalls a sometimes-stormy scene. "There was a big controversy with a group of people who didn't want to go to national standards at all," says Ms. Chambers, professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University's College of Education, in Bowling Gree, Ohio. "They thought it would invoke a dictum that all students will have to do such and such at each grade level, and if you didn't reach that you weren't any good."
What emerged, she says, is a reasonable compromise. Teachers can adapt the guidelines to suit their specific needs.
"I really don't think there should be reading lists," Chambers says. "I know the controversy over whether kids should be reading the classics. I think good teachers will be including these."
But, she says, problems arise once general guidelines become specific outlines.
"Once you start saying this should be read in first grade and this in second and third, then you're leaving out a whole breadth and depth of material that kids could be involved with," she says. "Good teachers should be given the right to make professional instructional decisions."
Miles Myers, NCTE's executive director, points to a whole series of publications that accompany the new standards.
"They'll say, 'Let's see what instruction in a novel like 'Huck Finn' might look like in class,'" he explains. The new standards "give us an anchor for absolutely explicit descriptions of work in classrooms with texts, language, and so forth. We didn't select these books in the accompanying publications because we thought they were worthless."
Today's standards need to incorporate what's known about learning and the society it occurs in, he maintains.
"The meaning of books changes over time," he says. "We don't mean students should not know the names of characters, but gender perspectives for example, have given us new understanding. It's part of being a citizen in a postmodern world.
"The old style of benchmark testing - tests and scoring - will not be adequate for the kind of literacy people are talking about for the 21st century," Mr. Myers says. "It will not work."
Samples of the new Standards
*Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of 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. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
*Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
*Students 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.
*Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources ... to communicate in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
*Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.