Teachers' National English Standards Caus Stir Plan Supports Bilingual, Multicultural Education -

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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 - it does not tell parents and educators what books every 12th-grader should have read or what kind of writing every fifth-grader should 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 some education leaders as too vague and lacking the concrete benchmarks that help parents determine how well their children - and their schools - perform. "It doesn't result in anything that is clearly measurable," said Michael Cohen, senior adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley.

Some reading experts were disappointed that the standards fail to stress the importance of 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. President Bill Clinton's administration yanked federal funding for the project two years ago because of disagreements over the content. The National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, the other group involved in drafting the standards, went ahead on their own, spending $1 million to produce the document unveiled in Washington Monday. …