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More Basic-Skills Instruction in Calif. Urged

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When last seen a half-dozen or so years ago, Dick and Jane were high-tailing it out of California with Spot nipping at their heels.

State officials there say they are not inviting the famous basal-reader trio to return, nor do they want students to spend their days tallying endless columns of numbers in one math drill after another.

But two state task forces, with the blessing of the California schools chief, have recommended that balance be restored to the teaching of reading and mathematics by including basic-skills instruction.

"Both task forces concluded that many language-arts and math programs have shifted too far away from direct-skills instruction," Delaine Eastin, the state superintendent of public instruction, said in releasing the two task force reports this month. "Both send a clear message that students need basic skills as well as more complex analytical and problem-solving skills."

But Ms. Eastin emphasized that neither she nor the task force members wanted the pendulum to swing fully in the other direction.

"Certainly we need to teach phonics, spelling, grammar, and computation skills, including adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing," she said. "However, there was nearly universal agreement that no one is advocating simply returning to the repetitive skill-and-drill approach."

To help achieve the task forces' goals, the superintendent said she intends to ask the state board of education to modify the state math and language-arts frameworks and to seek additional state funding to buy textbooks and supplemental instructional materials that reflect the proposed changes.

Frameworks Cited

California became a pioneer in 1987 when it adopted a literature-based, or whole-language, framework for language arts. Other schools and districts nationwide followed suit--sometimes out of necessity as fewer basal readers and workbooks were published.

Although the curriculum guidelines did not bar teachers from using repetition, phonics, and other audio or visual word-decoding devices, the emphasis clearly was on teaching children to read by the ACT of reading pieces of fiction and nonfiction.

In 1992, meanwhile, California updated its math framework. The newer framework largely resembles the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' standards that emphasize problem-solving and mathematical theory. Some observers, however, maintain that the framework is more radical than the NCTM model.

Dismal scores on reading and math tests in the past couple of years prompted the state to re-examine its curriculum guidelines. (See Education Week, June 14, 1995.)

To achieve a balanced and comprehensive reading program, the reading task force's report spells out what schools must have:

  • A strong literature, language, and comprehension program that includes a balance of oral and written language;
  • An organized, explicit skills program that includes phonemic awareness (sounds in words), phonics, and decoding skills to address the needs of the emergent reader;
  • Ongoing diagnosis that informs teaching and assessment that ensures accountability; and
  • A powerful early-intervention program that provides individual tutoring for children at risk of reading failure.

"The disagreements are still there but put aside for the kids of California," said Adria F. Klein, a member of the task force and the president-elect of the California Reading Association.

"That's not Pollyanna talk, believe me," said Ms. Klein, a professor of education at California State University in San Bernardino. "That's hard-fought, word-for-word consensus building."

Unlike the explicit recommendations of the reading group, the math task force called for Ms. Eastin to establish "clear and specific content and performance standards" that reflect a balance of basic skills, conceptual understanding, and problem-solving.

Both groups also urged the state to require more and higher-level reading and math coursework for teacher-candidates and called on the state to provide more funds for the resources necessary to achieve the goals.

In addition, they urged the state to ACT quickly in the implementation of a statewide assessment program to replace the system that politicians killed last fall. Earlier this year, the chairman of the state Senate's education committee introduced a bill calling for a statewide assessment system. But that bill was tabled earlier this month. (See Education Week, Sept. 13, 1995.)

However, right before it adjourned this month, the legislature passed an alternative, but similar, measure.

Maureen DiMarco, Gov. Pete Wilson's education adviser, and others said last week that there are many doubts about whether the measure will be implemented.

Satisfaction, Relief, Worry

"Hallelujah!" declared Ms. DiMarco, one of the frameworks' leading critics, in commenting on the panels' reports. sg/kd: ok?gc "Reading is exactly right; math is fine as far as it went," she said, adding that Ms. Eastin's decision to seek supplemental math materials would strengthen the state's action.

During the state's latest math-textbook adoption last year, critics contended that the textbook-selection committee chose materials devoid of computational skills, and they persuaded the state board to add other materials to the adoption list. That action led others to accuse the state board of succumbing to political pressure and adding unsatisfactory books.

Wayne Bishop, a math professor at California State University in Los Angeles, resigned from the task force, saying it did not go far enough. He said he wanted the group to go on record in favor of a nationally recognized standardized test to verify whether students reached expected levels of comprehension and computational ability.

Supporters of literature-based reading instruction and the NCTM instructional approach for math expressed relief.

"What they've said is, 'Look, we have some things we could do a little better,"' said Miles Myers, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English.

"I don't see that it repudiates what we have been trying to do over the last eight years," added Jack Price, the president of the NCTM and a professor of math education at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona.

Some educators, however, are wary of the effect the proposed changes may have.

Sheridan D. Blau, the vice president of the English teachers' group and the director of the South Coast Writing Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said he feared that state intervention may pressure good teachers, who had never abandoned various instructional approaches, to change.

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