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Reform movement cries for ideas - substance before skills

A new wave of change may be swelling in what has been the longest and most complex school reform movement in the nation's history. The new wave is ``content.'' The ``back to basics'' emphasis on math and reading of the early 1980s is giving way to a more sophisticated revision of what students learn about English, science, history, and social studies (especially geography), experts say.

Substance and ideas - rather than ``learning skills'' - are being emphasized. A narrower, more coherent pattern of study is replacing an oftentimes crazy-quilt curricular ``openness.''

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In California, the content wave has already hit the beach. New ``curriculum frameworks'' have been completed for most subjects. In United States history, for example, more class time will be spent on the central narrative and motivating forces of the Revolution and Civil War.

Math in California schools must now combine practical ``hands on'' learning (how to compute the number of nails and pints of paint needed to build a playhouse) with the underlying, conceptual basis for how numbers work. This replaces the more abstract ``pure math'' (such as set theory) that characterized the post-Sputnik era.

``It's about time we realized that students can't understand the social, geographic, ethical world without better content,'' says Bill Honig, California superintendent of education. ``For years, we've drifted from the difficult intellectual effort it takes to make content accessible to young people.''

So far, California stands alone in actual content reform. Other stirrings include demands in Illinois for better ``learning outcomes.'' Even rural Arizona schools are working on ``curricular realignment.''

But it's still early, education specialists say. Measured by education's glacial pace of change, the new content reform is sudden and dramatic.

Evidence of this are two of the best-selling books in America this summer - Allan Bloom's ``The Closing of the American Mind'' (Simon & Schuster) and E.D. Hirsch's ``Cultural Literacy'' (Houghton Mifflin). Both are direct critiques of the vitality and soundness of schools - and content in particular.

The push for richer content is driven by a number of factors: an unease across the land over the perceived erosion of common political and cultural learning among students; a tendency toward relativistic values (``no ideas are better than others'') and utilitarian aims (``learning is the handmaid of the job market'') in schools; and a widespread educational belief in ``formalism'' - that learning skills can be imparted separately from content.

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Other factors include US economic competitiveness, outdated state policies, education schools out of touch, new student populations, the fragmentation of disciplines in colleges, and at least a dozen recent critical studies of school textbooks and what one expert termed ``their bland, commercialized offerings.''

A study showing the lack of a clear narrative of democracy in world history textbooks by historian Paul Gagnon - published four weeks ago - is considered the most insightful of these works to date. (It is ``Democracy's Untold Story,'' published by the American Federation of Teachers.)

And more ammunition is on the way. This Sunday, Lynne Cheney, director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, releases a critical study (``American Memory'') on the teaching of humanities in the public schools. On Sept. 10, a new national assessment of high school students' knowledge of basic history will be released in book form by a leading educator, Diane Ravitch of Columbia University, and US Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr., who says the results are ``fairly gloomy.''

Dr. Finn believes content is the ``next educational frontier.'' It's ``the fifth agenda,'' he says. Recent school reform has gone through four previous phases: first, the basic skills movement of the early '80s; second, a concern for teacher issues (pay, testing, professionalism); third, ``effective schools'' research, showing how an ethos of quality is developed in school systems; and, fourth, an effort to redefine equity - in which the policies governing minority schools are based as much on proven results as they are on older equal-opportunity formulas.

Mr. Honig is lobbying for federally funded centers around the country that would focus on how to teach subject themes such as math or English. So far the only national center is for reading, at the University of Illinois.

A new ``Cultural Literacy Foundation'' to review curriculum has been set up by leading educators such as Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and Mr. Hirsch. It's based on the idea that content determines the quality of learning, and that all students, regardless of race, need to have a common body of knowledge to participate economically and socially in American life.

``With the advent of an information economy, there's a need for a core curriculum that won't just be for the college bound,'' says Allan Odden, a professor at the University of Southern California. ``There are things that all kids need to know. `Skills' aren't enough.''

But resistance to content reform is already developing across the education establishment. At a July meeting of the major English teacher associations, the content-based ideas of Hirsch's cultural literacy were panned. The National Council for Social Studies is planning a similar attack on Paul Gagnon's democracy-based approach to world history.

Finn likens the situation to a similar reaction from educators after the 1983 ``A Nation at Risk'' report describing ``a rising tide of mediocrity'' in schools: ``Here again, you have incisive evidence showing the need for better content. You have massive public agreement. And yet the education groups most responsible for reform are taking the status quo, saying, `What, me worry?'''

A subtle, unexplored reason for resistance, says Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is a nascent anti-intellectualism among many education administrators. At a recent speech to 150 high school principals, Mr. Shanker asked how many had heard of Hirsch's best-selling ``Cultural Literacy.'' Only three hands were raised.

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