Understanding New York City's new academic standards ought to be as easy as ABC. At least, that's what city officials are hoping as they hustle to get the board of education's new pamphlets into the hands of parents in time for parent-teacher conferences this month.
The books hardly appear revolutionary. But they signal two cutting-edge issues in the drive to boost school performance: spelling out clearly what children in each grade need to know - and then going to great lengths to ensure that parents know about the requirements and understand them.
"Parents are the missing link and this is an attempt to deal with them," says Mary Fulton, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "The schools can't do it alone."
Less altruistic forces may also be at work. Clearly articulating the standards required for promotion to the next grade, point out some observers, could serve as a preemptive strike against the lawsuits that have already begun to arise as districts get tougher about holding back failing students.
New York City has produced a booklet for each year - kindergarten through Grade 8 - with high school editions due out soon. The leaflets are simple but specific about the English and math goals they articulate. (Science and social-studies guides are expected to follow shortly.)
First-graders, for instance, must be able to count forward and backward by ones and twos to and from 100 by the end of the school year, while eighth-graders need to be able to write an essay that makes a convincing argument.
Promotion to the next grade level, explains a small box at the bottom of each pamphlet, is linked to achieving these goals.
New York is not the first city to put academic standards in writing for parents. Some schools have begun printing standards on report cards, and advocacy groups in Boston and Pittsburgh have used written guides to communicate with parents.
But New York's effort is unusually comprehensive. Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew says he intends to "blanket" the city with the pamphlets, sending them home with students, and making them available at churches, libraries, stores, community centers, and on the Web. They will be printed in at least eight languages other than English.
Mr. Crew says he can't overstate the importance of parental participation to the success of the standards movement. "These standards don't have a life," he warns, "unless they live in the minds of parents."
But the experience of Chicago schools may offer a cautionary tale about the booklets' potential. That city also produces guides and distributes them with report cards twice a year.
"I think it's a great idea," says Diana Lauber, assistant director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform in Chicago. But when she's asked local parents about the guides, she says most tell her, "Yeah, I sort of remember getting them."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society