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Calif. Task Force Urges Elementary-School Reforms

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California's elementary-school curriculum should be made more challenging and geared toward character development, a state task force urged last week.

In addition to the curriculum-reform recommendations, the Elementary Grades Task Force suggested more aggressive efforts to consider ethnic background in hiring teachers, expanded social services within schools, and performance-based assessments that, in the case of limited-English-proficient students, would be given in their native language.

"It's very clear that we have not sufficiently challenged our youngsters in these early grades when they have such incredible energy and potential for learning,'' said Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, who empaneled the group.

A "powerful, discovery-based curriculum'' is the key to improving student achievement, Mr. Honig said.

The panel's report, "It's Elementary!,'' is the latest in a series of task-force findings aimed at providing a new set of goals for the nation's largest state public-school system. Earlier reports, beginning in 1987, focused on overhauls of the state's middle schools, school-readiness efforts, and high schools. (See Education Week, April 1, 1992.)

The elementary-school report comes after nearly two years of meetings by the 38-member task force. Mr. Honig said that while the report was delivered in the midst of California's severe fiscal problems, it should point elementary-school educators in important new directions.

"Inevitably, critics will complain that we are urging new reforms when many schools can barely maintain their current programs,'' he said. "The authors of this report--sensitive to fiscal woes--have suggested recommendations that generally do not require additional funding.''

"I think it is indisputable that if we can get all elementary students to succeed, we will ultimately save millions of dollars and enhance the quality of many young lives,'' he added.

Character Education Stressed

Perhaps the report's most distinctive proposal is a call for making character education a significant part of the elementary-school curriculum. In fact, the panel calls the suggestion its "pre-eminent recommendation.''

"Those of us in education have a major responsibility in communicating our nation's shared values to our children, and elementary school is definitely where that dialogue should begin,'' Mr. Honig said, pointing to the recent Los Angeles riots as support for the panel's call. The unrest, he said, "is a solemn reminder of the fragility of our democracy.''

The task force recommends teaching proper character traits "using explicit examples of moral behavior'' within subject areas. The group adds that adoption of its other reforms would complement the character focus. "Students learn social values through the example of the school as a caring community,'' the report says.

The authors of the report conceded that its recommendations come amid challenging circumstances. While research has shown that elementary-school students are prepared to grasp more sophisticated information, 29 percent of California's kindergarten students speak limited English. Further, the percentage of poor children in the state's schools continues to rise, doubling between 1969 and 1987, officials said.

"This report is reaching our schools at a time when there is tremendous ferment in elementary schools throughout the state and nation,'' the report says. "To respond effectively to these various agents of change, the strategy for reforming elementary education must be a coordinated, long-term one.''

Team Teaching Backed

Among the group's other suggestions are:

  • Classroom changes that would encourage teachers to develop a subject of expertise and employ new team-teaching and student-grouping strategies to challenge students. The report also calls for more early intervention to attend to children's reading skills and discourages retention as an instructional tool.
  • Personnel reforms that would include a greater emphasis on staff-development activities, focusing particularly on curriculum changes, as well as greater efforts to recruit minority teachers.
  • Administrative changes directed toward creating a new system of performance-based tests sensitive to students' language differences, as well as greater efforts to develop an emotional bond with students and parents to spur greater school involvement.
  • New outreach efforts aimed at exanding social services and health-care referrals within schools and greater efforts by school boards and district officials to solicit community support in addressing local schools' needs.

State officials said that the recommendations, which are not intended to become part of any legislative proposals, will be the subject of fall workshops across California.

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