The Jargon Jungle

IT'S THAT TIME OF YEAR WHEN DAZED and confused parents of school-age children try to find their way through the jargon jungle. Portfolio assessment, critical thinking, multiple learning styles, metacognitive skills, whole language--after a few classroom conferences, parents must begin to wonder whether some of these teachers ever speak standard English. Fortunately, two longtime guides through the pedagogical wilderness-- E. D. Hirsch Jr. and Theodore Sizer --have weighed in with new books that should help education consumers work past the muddle.

Ideological opposites, the two authors have vastly different prescriptions for education. In The Schools We Need (317 pages. Doubleday. $24.95), Hirsch, author of the 1987 best seller ""Cultural Literacy,'' argues persuasively for a national core curriculum supplemented by subjects of local or regional significance. (In an influential series of books he has outlined grade-by-grade suggestions for such an approach, beginning with ""What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know.'') A national curriculum, Hirsch says, would help even the playing field for poor kids, who often don't get the educational jump-start at home--books around the house, trips to museums--that is part of the child-rearing agenda in many middle-class families.

Sizer, who has focused on secondary education in two previous books, ""Horace's Compromise'' and ""Horace's School,'' finds the greatest promise in grass-roots reform efforts that involve active consortiums of administrators, teachers and parents. In Horace's Hope (198 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $22.95), the last volume of the trilogy, Sizer revisits what he describes as ""typical'' high schools as well as members of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national reform group he chairs.

Of the two, Hirsch's is the more useful map for parents. Despite his admitted bias against what he calls ""progressive education,'' Hirsch provides an illuminating history of more than five decades of reform. The bottom line: much of what's purported to be new is actually quite old and has never been proven effective. Again and again, he points out that teaching methods based on ""new research'' can trace their roots to theories first proposed generations ago. His targets include: ""developmentally appropriate'' education that results in a dumbed-down curriculum for elementary-school children and an overemphasis on ""individual learning styles'' that leads to meaningless grade inflation.

The final section, a ""Critical Guide to Educational Terms and Phrases,'' is worth the price of the book all by itself. It's an alphabetical glossary explaining the mysteries of such topics as ""culturally biased tests,'' ""hands-on learning,'' ""multiple intelligences,'' ""student-centered education'' and ""thematic learning.'' Hirsch, a professor at the University of Virginia, is clearly struggling to maintain some objectivity despite his personal preferences. But a careful reader will detect a rather droll tone to some of the definitions. Take, for example, his discussion of the ""promise of technology.'' It' a particularly effective deflation of the gee-whiz view of all things digital. ""Caution is called for,'' Hirsch writes. Later, he notes that ""there is no evidence that a well-stocked and well-equipped mind can be displaced by "accessing skills' ''---a popular way of describing the ability to look things up on a computer.

Diminished expectations: Hirsch's arguments are fueled by his passionate belief in universal high-quality education as the key to democracy. Sizer, a professor emeritus at Brown University, exhibited that same energy in his earlier books. But this time out, Sizer and Horace--his fictional amalgam of veteran high-school teachers--appear to be hopeful only because they've lowered their expectations. Sizer finds schools that work, but in most cases, that success stems from the creativity and dedication of a particular principal or a group of teachers or parents and is frustratingly hard to replicate on a wide scale. How do you copy the talent of a dynamic principal like Dennis Littky, whose transformation of New Hampshire's Thayer Junior-Senior High School was so dramatic it became the subject of a TV movie? Horace finds hope, Sizer says, in the great maelstrom of ideas circulating in the past few years. So what if some have turned out to be less than advertised? Ideological turbulence, Sizer writes, is a healthy development, the first step in real reform. Perhaps, but in the meantime, we must mourn for the students who get only one shot at an education and suffer terribly if fate has placed them in the wrong trend at the wrong time.

What's missing in too many progressive curricula is an emphasis on the accumulation of actual facts--what used to be considered the foundation of a good, basic education. As Hirsch points out, learning how to think is meaningless without something challenging to think about. All that jargon in the jungle hides the light.