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Calif. School Board Infusing Pedagogy Into Frameworks

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After years of telling teachers what to teach, state education officials in California are edging toward telling them how to teach some subjects.

Though the state school board, not surprisingly, is beginning with language arts, the plan to infuse more-specific teaching guidelines into frameworks documents is not expected to stop there.

Sheridan Blau

Frameworks in other subjects, especially mathematics, will veer from their traditional course as primarily theoretical documents and suggest ways to teach the various principles outlined in the state's academic standards, board members say.

The shift in policy pleases some educators, who say the documents will give them much-needed guidance for helping students meet the standards. Others, however, fear the move is another way for the state to compel teachers to use one method of instruction over another. State lawmakers have already dictated the use of phonics, and the board's latest action is seen as further expanding the state's role over how teachers conduct their classes.

Matt Gandal

"I see this as ... the fallout from this skills [vs.] whole-language debate," said Sharon Ulanoff, a member of the frameworks committee for language arts.

"This is an effort to get more skills embedded into the document," said Ms. Ulanoff, an assistant professor of multilingual/multicultural education at California State University-San Marcos, who opposes the move.

Tangled Process

Since 1994, when California's ranking on national reading tests plunged, educators and policymakers have been searching for a solution. In large part, they blamed the last framework in the language arts, adopted in 1987, which endorsed whole-language instruction.

Reading legislation passed in 1995 and 1996 was designed to reverse the focus on whole language. The reading laws require districts to use state funds solely for those programs and textbooks that emphasize explicit, systematic phonics instruction. ("California Continues Phaseout of Whole-Language Era," July 9, 1997.)

In the ongoing battle between advocates of whole-language instruction, who believe children learn to read through early exposure to textbooks and literature, and those promoting phonics instruction--which emphasizes sounding out letters and words as the basis for learning to read--there has been disagreement over how far the state should go to encourage the use of one method over another.

Similar disputes have erupted over the creation of California's math and science standards, which have pitted back-to-basics supporters against those advocating an emphasis on conceptual understanding.

Apparently, though, the process of creating standards and frameworks in language arts had become so entangled that it was impossible for the frameworks committee to line up the document with standards that were yet to be written.

As a result, the state board last week awarded a $14,000 contract to a University of Oregon group of special education researchers who favor phonics to align the frameworks document more closely with the new standards.

The contract also calls for the inclusion of a more detailed prescription for using explicit, systematic phonics to teach reading.

"They will reflect the need for phonics instruction much more than in the past," Sonia Hernandez, the state's deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said of the frameworks. "They will stress the need for solid basic skills," she said, "but not to the exclusion of rich literature."

A Helping Hand

The new draft of the frameworks was completed last year, before the new standards were adopted. The board decided to hire professional writers to compose a new draft, based on the standards, in order to meet a tight deadline and to limit the burden on volunteer committee members who had already dedicated more than a year to the process, said Marion Joseph, a state board member. The committee's draft will provide some guidance to the new writers, she said.

"In the process of developing the standards, we realized how essential it was to develop that kind of guidance [on methods] for teachers," Ms. Joseph said.

Some educators agree.

"Without some guidelines of how to reach those standards, teachers are going to be at a loss," said Carol Jago, the director of the California reading and literacy project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The frameworks document may be the most appropriate place for such directives, according to Matt Gandal, the director of standards and assessment for Achieve, a nonprofit Cambridge, Mass.-based organization created by the nation's governors and business leaders to push for higher academic standards. Mr. Gandal has studied the standards movement nationwide and is an ardent supporter of providing teachers with specific benchmarks.

Some states have created similar guidelines, "often just to illustrate what standards mean or look like in practice," Mr. Gandal said. But it's important to put such guidelines in a separate document so that it is clear the standards are measuring what children should learn and "not whether teachers have followed lock step a particular teaching strategy," he said.

But some observers see the latest move by the state board, appointed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, as an attempt to limit teachers' options, particularly in reading instruction.

Sheridan Blau, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English, said that legislators and board members are pushing one agenda.

"The legislation we are now living with is not asking for a balanced approach [to teaching reading]. It demonizes people who have alternative points of view," Mr. Blau contended.

Also upset with the state board's latest action are some members of the frameworks committee, who feel their work has been dismissed without good cause.

"I was angry. I felt betrayed because I spent a year of my life doing it," Ms. Ulanoff said. "There were teachers on the committee who had given time away from their students. We kind of felt left out of the process."

Publishing Specs

California adopted its first-ever state content standards in language arts and reading and in math last December. Draft standards in science and in history and social sciences are due to the board by the fall and must be adopted before the end of the year.

With the new standards providing the broad outline of what students should know at various grade levels, the frameworks, which have been a mainstay in California for decades, will provide more-specific guidelines for when and how to teach various principles in the core subjects. They will also act as an outline for textbook publishers, who tend to model their products on the specifications of California and Texas.

Even though the standards are voluntary, students will eventually be required to take state assessments that gauge how well they meet them--a factor that observers say will force districts to take the standards seriously.

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  • The California Board of Education Web site contains a copy of the state's content standards for language arts.
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