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Showdown on Texas Curriculum Standards Slated

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After more than two years, millions of dollars, and countless discussions, arguments, and revisions by a state committee with more than three dozen appointees, Texas school board members are gearing up for a final vote next month on the state's first new curriculum in a decade.

But an alternative to the English-language-arts and reading standards--crafted at a kitchen table and on a home computer by a handful of teachers--may be getting the most attention.

The alternative document, which promotes a phonics-based approach to teaching reading over a "whole language" or literature-based method, is likely to influence the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. Known as the teks, the document will outline what students in the public schools are required to know in English and reading, as well as in math, science, and social studies. The new standards are set to take effect in the 1998-99 school year.

The corps of veteran teachers, many of whom were disappointed members of the state's standards-writing team for English language arts, is arguing that more basic skills, especially explicit phonics, spelling, and grammar, must be included in the standards. The current version includes broad guidelines for what teachers are expected to include in their lessons, but allows them to teach the subject however they wish. That vagueness, and the strong emphasis the standards place on literature, will lead to more whole-language instruction in the early grades, the teachers' group says.

"We believe that skills should be explicit by grade level. That doesn't sound like a very complicated issue. We think it's common sense," said Donna Garner, a teacher at Midway High School in Waco who spearheaded the breakaway effort over the past year.

A Merger Ahead?

The specificity of the teachers' document is what has drawn both praise and criticism from state officials, who have directed the education department to merge the best elements of both drafts.

"What's attractive about [the alternative draft] is the level of detail," said Ann Smisko, the state's associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment, and technology. "We have been really working to incorporate everything that is appropriate into the TEKS."

Ms. Smisko said that there is a fine line between what may and may not be appropriate in adapting some of the ideas of the substitute document. Ms. Garner's draft, she said, focuses too much on when and how to teach specific elements of the subject.

Although the Texas Alternative Document Draft, or TADD, as the teachers call it, places greater emphasis on the basic skills that more and more parents, educators, and policymakers are demanding, officials say it is too prescriptive to satisfy state laws that prohibit state officials from dictating how subjects should be taught.

"We have to write a curriculum that is broad enough to ... allow different methodologies," said Geraldine Miller, a state board member for the past 13 years. "The alternative document reads as [one particular] methodology. You can't get that specific."

Challenging the Agency

Regardless of its problems, the TADD in May won the endorsement of nearly half the 15 state board members, who ultimately failed to substitute it for the TEKS in a 7-7 vote. One member was absent.

Ms. Garner said the vote spurred a collective gasp of surprise from attendees who rarely witness such a strong challenge to the work of the Texas Education Agency.

"The TEA has never been stopped before," Ms. Garner said. "In all of our experience, they've never had grassroots people rise up and say, 'We've had enough, and this is the way it should be done.' They just assumed their version would be passed."

Board member Bob Offutt still supports the TADD. "The alternative draft is absolutely stronger, much more specific, and much more vigorous," he said. "It is such a superior document it needs to be substituted in its entirety."

But many of those who supported the substitute draft, including Ms. Miller, saw problems with it and voted for the state's version after the initial vote failed.

Ms. Garner and her allies, however, point to the involvement of teachers, some of the nation's best-known reading researchers, and support from education experts.

E.D. Hirsch Jr., a professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who advocates a core of knowledge that students should learn as they go through school, said the TADD was superior to the state's standards.

Incorporating the teachers' draft into the TEKS, Ms. Garner said, would compromise the alternative document's quality. At a board session last week, the teachers' group was prepared to offer a revision that addressed many of the concerns, she said.

But the group's reluctance to cooperate in combining the documents upset Ms. Miller, who said that the teachers will lose the argument if they refuse to acquiesce. "I am sorry to see a polarization and an unwillingness [on the part of the teachers] to really try to compromise on this," Ms. Miller said. "A lot of good work has gone into both documents, and I know they can be melded."

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