California Continues Phaseout of Whole-Language Era

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — July 09, 1997 3 min read

California lawmakers are continuing their efforts to end the state’s decade-long commitment to whole-language instruction with a multimillion-dollar plan that extends professional development in reading to the later grades and toughens requirements for teacher trainers.

A Senate education committee has unanimously approved a bill that would provide $46 million in federal Goals 2000 aid during the next year to train teachers, particularly those in grades 4 through 8, in phonics-based teaching methods. The bill earlier gained approval of the Assembly education committee and was sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.

The bill expands on legislation passed last year that set aside more than $ 150 million in additional aid for textbooks and professional-development programs that stress phonics in reading instruction. That money was targeted at K-3 classrooms and teachers.

“This provides money for staff development for teachers who perhaps have only been trained in whole language. This will train them in phonics instruction,” said Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni, the author of the bill, who chairs the lower house’s education committee. The focus on later grades, the Democrat said, will address the needs of students still struggling with learning to read.

If the legislation passes, districts wanting to use state money for teacher in-service programs in reading would have to select trainers and consultants from a state-approved list. The programs would have to prepare teachers for instruction in phoneme awareness, systematic explicit phonics, decoding, spelling, vocabulary, and comprehension skills.

The plan responds, in part, to concerns raised earlier this year by lawmakers and state school board members that districts might use state training funds for whole-language programs, which the new law prohibits. (See Education Week, May 7, 1997.)

Blacklist Ahead?

The proposal earned praise from some school officials, but others said that the legislation would dictate reading pedagogy and violate local control.

“When I heard about it, I was just immediately horrified,” said Sharon Zinke, an elementary teacher in Hayward, Calif., who provides training for teachers in her own and other districts. “How I’m affected by this law is that I’ll be blacklisted because I don’t subscribe to the same philosophy.”

Ms. Zinke, who has taught reading for 30 years and describes herself as a whole-language advocate, said she has been teaching explicit phonics throughout her career, but not in the sequential way prescribed by lawmakers.

Officials in the Santee elementary district near San Diego support the much-needed funding for teacher training, but said the initiative was flawed without changes that would give them more options in hiring trainers.

“Our community and school board are very interested in consistency and high standards, but at the same time, we have to have some flexibility to best meet the needs of our students,” said Daniel Callahan, an assistant superintendent in Santee.

California and Louisiana 4th graders scored last among states on a 1994 national reading assessment reading--a humiliating status that sponsors of the state measures attribute to a 1987 whole-language initiative, which emphasized literature rather than the sounding out of words.

Whole-language advocates, however, say that they never abandoned phonics, and that large class sizes and inadequate funding were to blame for the poor performance.

But lawmakers say the state must intervene if reading is to be improved. “When we have a situation in this state as serious as the inability of our children to read, it is appropriate for the state to step in,” Ms. Mazzoni said. “There has been local control on this issue for a number of years, and we have children who can’t read.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week