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Valley Perspective | PERSPECTIVE ON EDUCATION

Even Standards Need a Reality Check

Students change. So do their needs and the needs of society. Educational goals and rewards must likewise change to reflect this reality.

September 13, 1998|JOY NORSTRAND | Joy Norstrand is a retired teacher and Northridge resident

Much has been written in the press accusing high school teachers of sending unprepared students, who don't "measure up" to certain standards, on to college. But these standards must be bent lest they break.

During the many years I have been involved in teaching English on one level or another, I have heard seventh-grade teachers blame sixth-grade teachers for not teaching what sixth-grade grade teachers "should." I have heard (in the '60s) the History Department at Cal State Northridge blame the English Department there for inept student writing. The accusations go on and on. They rest on the assumption that unchanging, absolute standards are achievable for all students at certain, set-in-concrete levels.

But standards, like everything else, sometimes change. Often colleges and departments cling to "absolute" standards because, by God, that's what the faculty knows. When I was at UCLA in the '40s, English majors had to take a year each of Chaucer, Spenser and Milton! Or we could look back at the Latin grammar school's requirements that students study Greek and Latin. The point is, requirements for diplomas and degrees change. Sometimes old faculty members clinging to what they know have to die off before these changes happen.

The students themselves change in their backgrounds and in their needs to acquire new skills. In the Middle Ages the correct use of the trebuchet was a highly desired skill. Thus it may be that the skill of writing papers in Standard English is declining to the point that it will be preserved only in scholarly journals. Writing skills may fade in importance compared to computer skills, for instance.

The accusations against high school teachers then, rest on the arrogant attitudes of some instructors: They alone possess priceless information to impart to students but are frustrated from doing so by the incompetent / lazy instructors "below" them who have promoted these unprepared students into "their" classes. But incompetence and laziness exist in the colleges as much as in the high schools, and most high school teachers are competent and hard-working.

But the students of today are different. First, television has made profound changes in the way we learn to write standard English. For the young child, the difference between watching a rerun of "Bewitched" and turning the pages of a book like "Goodnight, Moon" is that the book bestows (albeit subliminally) knowledge of grammar, sentence structure and spelling. This knowledge is what the child misses when he watches TV to the exclusion of books.

Many students start school without ever seeing a book, and they are years behind their peers who have had experiences with books. We have seen two generations of such students already. Should we fail these students until they are "reading ready"? You're going to have some elderly first-graders.

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The first-grade then is where the buck stops. As teachers we adjust our sights. We lengthen the period required to learn the writing process. This lengthening goes on right up to the university seminar room.

Are you going to refuse a high school diploma to students who can't write a three-page essay in standard English? Then be prepared for a huge dropout rate and all its attendant problems of poverty and crime. Universities cannot hold their skirts apart from the very real problems of the society in which they exist. San Fernando Valley high schools cannot deliver to CSUN the students of 40 years ago.

Of course we could return to the days of the Latin grammar school and educate only well-to-do boys. We could eliminate 90 out of every 100 young people from our high schools and colleges. But I am not arguing for social promotion (that bete noire). There must be goals and standards at every level. I am arguing for standards to be based on a realistic understanding of the student population, which has changed and is changing. Students' needs change too and must be addressed at whatever educational level these needs are noted.

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Good teachers at every level have always known this. They take their students as given to them, assess the students' capabilities, address their needs, and advance them along the educational road.

This brings us to the second big factor that now affects the educational process: the stunning number of immigrants who have entered the schools. For the most part these are intelligent, motivated students who want to learn spoken and written standard English. But this is a long process. To cite just one example, the correct use of the English articles requires years of practice and study. We cannot warehouse these students in high schools until they "measure up" to obsolete, solipsistic "standards."

Let's discontinue the blame game. Stop blaming the high school teachers for the changed student body. Rather we should applaud these hard-working teachers who are dealing on the front line with the great problems of our changing times. Also, recognize that the change in students and the change in their needs and society's needs require constant reexamination and re-prioritizing of educational goals and rewards. We must bend or break.

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