State Standards and Grammar in the Curriculum 
The Meaninglessness of Most States' Standards

A Response from John Weiss,
Bureau of Curriculum and Academic Services,
Pennsylvania Department of Education


COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
333 MARKET STREET
HARRISBURG. PA 17126-0333
May 27, 1998

Dr. Edward Vavra
Rose Parisella Productions
PO Box 4026
Williamsport, PA 17701-0626

Dear Dr. Vavra:

     As the Standards Project Manager for Pennsylvania's Academic Standards, I have been asked to respond to your correspondence regarding the proposed Pennsylvania standards in regard to the teaching of grammar.  Your passion for grammar is obvious and to be admired.  Because of professionals such as you, our students will receive a solid framework in grammar from which to expand into writers.

     I had the opportunity to peruse your web site and found I agree with many of your ideas. When I began teaching English twenty-seven years ago, I used many of the same methods you endorse. I particularly found the removal of all prepositional phrases prior to the examination of the rest of the words in a sentence to determine a word's usage to be a highly effective method to teach usage; however, I must emphasize that it was/is a method, not a Standard.  The goal of Pennsylvania's
Academic Standards is not to tell teachers how to teach; it is only to set a target for what students should know and be able to do.

     Chapter 4 defines Academic Standards as "the knowledge and skills which students will be expected to demonstrate . . ."  In your correspondence you state that standards are not testable; hence, although they may be goals or objectives, they are not standards. The state would propose that knowledge and skills are testable; thus, by definition, Pennsylvania's Academic Standards are, indeed, standards.

     I must confess I found myself searching for the motive for your criticism. Some of your comments seem harsh and rather critical of the authors of the Standards. Of the thirty-eight people who comprised the original task force assigned to write the Standards for reading, writing, speaking and listening, approximately thirty of them were educators, representing all levels of education.  These people were recognized as leaders in the state in the area(s) of reading, writing, speaking and listening. They were faced with the challenge to create Academic Standards that were rigorous, measurable and understandable. The writers took their task seriously, relying upon personal experiences, research, and best practices. They stood to gain nothing personally; nor were they paid for their efforts. To state as you do that, "The proposed standards therefore reflect either total ignorance of the problem, or conscious deceit. . ." unfairly represents these individuals.

     Standards were seen as necessary because the effectiveness of instruction cannot be measured unless the learning target is consistent.  Standards are intended to create that consistent target. Every educator, parent and student should know the expectation(s) for certain grade levels.  Pennsylvania's Academic Standards were created to clearly define that target.

     I must point out that the Standards document from which you are citing is an old document. Based upon critiques from the Council of Basic Education and Dr. Sandra Stotsky of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Standards 1.4 and 1.6 were folded into one Standard.  In the new Standard, the writing process and the quality of writing become one. Thus, conventions, or as you refer to it, grammar, are addressed in the editing portion of the writing process.

     In conclusion, the state will defend the Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening Standards as rigorous, clear, measurable Standards.  They are not, nor were they ever intended to be, a prescription for teaching grammar. The state has never intended to create a statewide curriculum.  The methods used to attain the Standards are a local decision. The state has merely set a rigorous, consistent goal for the knowledge and skills of all Pennsylvania students.



 

Dear Mr. Weiss:

     First of all, thank you for responding, and thank you for your kind words about my web site and ideas regarding the teaching of grammar. (Although I have contacted the PA Dept. of Education before, all I have ever received in return were form letters.) Dr. Stotsky's idea of combining Standards 1.4 and 1.6 into one standard is very good. Because you refer to her, I am sending her a copy of these materials to see if she will comment. The change, however, does not address the question of grammar, and, as I browse the new version, it seems, as far as grammar is concerned, even worse. I note, for example, that the word "grammar' is not in the new version. The word "syntax" is in the glossary, but nowhere else, and the word "sentence" appears only in standards 1.5 and 1.6.
     Unfortunately, you did not answer any of my questions. I was very happy to see you state that "Every educator, parent and student should know the expectation(s) for certain grade levels." I guess I must be slow, but I do have a Ph.D., I have taught writing at the college level for twenty years, and for fourteen years I have edited Syntax in the Schools. But, as I noted in my original statement, I don't understand the expectations for different grade levels. If, with that background,  I can't understand the parts of the standards that relate to grammar, I have to wonder what most teachers, parents, and students will think. I have discussed the standards with some people. They agree with me, but they have simply given up hope.
     I am disappointed that you misread my method of identifying prepositional phrases as a standard. If you read the entire section on prepositional phrases, you should have seen the section on assessment, where I state, "assess students by giving them a randomly selected three or four sentence passage and having them identify the prepositional phrases." That could easily be done, either within a specific school district, or on a state-wide exam. On the other hand, as I suggested in detail in my original statement, NOTHING in the state standards, at least as far as I can understand them, is specifically testable. Perhaps you would be willing to give us some examples of how teachers can test the various items at the different grade levels? Without examples, I don't understand.
     You claim that "The goal of Pennsylvania's Academic Standards is not to tell teachers how to teach; it is only to set a target for what students should know and be able to do." I do not want to repeat all of my detailed questions, but let's look at one of the eleventh grade standards in the new Section 1.5: "Use nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions and interjections properly." If our schools were doing what they should be (and this is a national problem), then parents would have learned, in school, how to identify nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions and interjections." (Although some people can, the majority can't. I know, because I regularly test students.) Parents would then be able to look at their own children's writing to see if the students are using these parts of speech "properly." What they would find is that their pre-school children are already doing so. Now, since their pre-school children are already meeting this eleventh grade standard, there is no reason for sending the children to school -- at least for this standard. I could go on to the other standards, but you did not respond to my detailed questions the first time, so I see no reason for doing so.
     In effect, you have answered all of my detailed questions with a fallacy of equivocation. You wrote, "The state would propose that knowledge and skills are testable; thus, by definition, Pennsylvania's Academic Standards are, indeed, standards." Knowledge and skills are indeed testable, but only if the knowledge and skills are defined in a testable way. We could, for example, define a horse as something that can be ridden. But we can also ride a hog or a bull. Does that make a hog or a bull a horse? If, as you say, the standards are testable, then you should be able to give us some examples (not requirements, just examples) of how they might be tested at each level. If you cannot do so, then I maintain my original position -- the standards are meaningless.

     You are, as you state, puzzled by my motives. Perhaps they can be traced back to John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Having been blessed with a good home, a good education, and a decent job, I needed to find something I could do for the country. I don't really have a lot to offer, but because of my background in languages, and because I was perplexed by the grammatical problems in my college Freshmen's writing, I began to study the teaching of grammar. As some of the thirty-eight people on your task force should know, it is a very controversial topic. In fact, although its position is slowly changing, the NCTE has passed a resolution against the teaching of grammar. My primary motive, therefore, is to improve the way that grammar is taught in this country.
     That motive is regularly reinforced as I see college students (and not just from Pennsylvania) who have trouble writing because they have trouble with grammar -- grammar that they should have learned before going to college. I also find it painful when upper class college students ask to take a grammar course with me as an independent study. The course costs them hundreds of dollars, money that they would not have to pay if our schools were doing their job. Beyond that, there are the complaints from business and industry. Not all, but many of the complaints about worker's problems with literacy involve grammar and writing at the sentence level. If you check my composition course web site, you will see that my students are expected to deal with a large number of writing skills besides grammar, but grammar is a major problem for many students.
     As for my motive in challenging Pennsylvania's standards, as I noted in the first paragraph of my original statement, "standards are very important because school systems, and the teachers in them, often tell parents that they must follow their state's standards." During my fourteen years as editor of Syntax in the Schools, I have often had teachers complain that they cannot change the way they teach grammar because of their state's standards. But if, as I have shown, the state standards are meaningless, at least in regards to grammar, then the standards are no longer an obstacle to improving teaching. These are my motives.

     You said that I unfairly represented the individuals on the original task force. Perhaps I did. But I can only judge them by their fruit. When I looked at what they have produced, and asked myself Why?, I could only come up with two possible reasons. I am more than willing to entertain others. When the great grammar debate began, almost twenty years ago, those of us who favored the teaching of grammar were treated, by members of our own profession, as if we were idiots. It has been a long, and sometimes very emotional debate. I also become emotional because I believe that, without TESTABLE standards, many of our students are being cheated. Without testable standards, students don't know what they don't know. I see this regularly, as I point out to my own students what they have not, and other members of the class have, learned. Often, these students themselves are dissatisfied with their previous education. But, particularly in the area I am concerned with, what they have been cheated of is one of our most precious rights -- the freedom of speech. Most of these students could not sit down and write a letter such as yours or mine. They may be free to speak their minds, but the freedom does not do them much good if they do not have the ability to write well. Writing well is not limited to grammar, but, as I have noted above, poor command of grammar, particularly syntax, is a major obstacle. Unless you (or someone else) can explain the testability of the standards better than you have, I still say that they are meaningless. We will have to let the people who visit the web site decide who is right.

     I thank you for your time, and I am looking forward to your explanations.

Sincerely,
 
 

Dr. Ed Vavra
Rose Parisella Productions
PO Box 4026
Williamsport, PA 17701-0626

    CC:  Dr. Sandra Stotsky
            The RPP web site