Forced Choices in a Non-Crisis

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There is panic in California. Jay Leno takes a cheap shot at California kids: None of them can read. That only slightly exaggerates what the California Reading Task Force says in a report released in September:

"National and state reports indicate that a majority of California's children cannot read at basic levels. This reading failure begins in early grades and has a harmful effect for a lifetime. Only a call to action at the highest levels, one that can marshal both human and fiscal resources and bring this story to the public, can be expected to address this crisis." (See Education Week, Sept. 27, 1995.)

The report starts with a gross misrepresentation of California reading achievement. Then it leaps to unsupported and simplistic explanations for the crisis. Finally, it demands actions which are conflicted and impossible.

"... [S]tudents will be reading beginning materials independently by mid-1st grade, reading at grade level by the end of 3rd grade, and making continuous grade-level progress thereafter."

Grade level in reading is an artifact of normed tests, the score the average test-taker achieves in each grade. So 50 percent will be above and 50 percent below. Mandating independent reading by all 1st graders by midyear will not make that happen. Some children have made strong beginnings by the time they start 1st grade; some will still be gaining control of the process in 3rd grade. That's why early-childhood educators have fought so hard for developmentally appropriate instruction.

If the task force had taken a calm look at reading achievement, it would have found that more children are reading independently at earlier levels than ever before. And this is happening most in the classrooms where informed professional teachers are implementing or going beyond the current framework. Many of those whom the schools are failing are in unsafe buildings taught by uncertified teachers. Since Proposition 13, California spends less per-pupil than almost all other industrialized states. Demand for immediate achievement of impossible goals will only make things worse.

And there is no reading crisis in California schools. No national or state reports indicate a majority of California's children cannot read at basic levels. There is considerable evidence that most California kids, like other American kids, are reading more and with better comprehension. In the first half of 1995, sales of children's paperback books rose by 39.2 percent nationally over the previous year, which was 17 percent over the year before. There are over 60 children's bookstores in California.

Children are also checking out record numbers of books from public libraries. Circulation of children's books in California rose by over 10 percent from 1992 to 1993 and would have continued in 1994 except that libraries reduced their hours and book purchases due to a cut of almost 30 percent in their funding over a three-year period. Still, California schoolchildren checked out about 50 million books a year in that three-year period.

These data are supported by the 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which reported that 44 percent of 4th graders say they "read for fun" almost every day. Only 13 percent say they almost never read for fun. A lot of capable, confident readers have found authentic, personal reasons for reading.

There is little to connect changes in reading instruction to test scores. But we can connect reading for fun to the experiences with books kids are having in schools. Both teachers and kids in the 1992 NAEP reported that more than half of all 4th-grade students in the country read silently and read books of their own choice almost every day in school.

The 1992 and 1994 NAEP studies are most often cited as showing the "dismal" performance of California kids. But the 1994 results have yet to be released. A brief summary showed only 12th-grade scores down from 1992. Interestingly, the '92 NAEP showed that 12th graders read less than 4th graders.

We should not forget that 1992 was the first year NAEP published state-by-state data. Fourteen states refused to let themselves be ranked or had too few schools willing to participate. California--as a whole--ranked among the lowest-ranked states or territories with these others: the District of Columbia, Guam, Hawaii, Mississippi. All have a wide diversity of income and/or ethnicity.

The '92 NAEP established arbitrary scores as representative of basic, proficient, and advanced reading at each grade level tested. The critical levels were established by committees. They didn't do a very good job. Nationally, few readers at any level beat the score that they called "advanced": 4th grade, 4 percent; 8th grade, 2 percent; 12th grade, 3 percent. And large numbers fell below their "basic" cutoff score: 4th grade, 41 percent; 8th grade, 31 percent; and 12th grade 25 percent. California's scores were comparable to those in other states of similar diversity. In attempting to switch from norm-referenced to arbitrary-criterion scores, NAEP gave newspapers juicy headlines: "One of four high school graduates unable to read." If students across America did so poorly on this test, one strong explanation is that it was an unsuccessful test with unreasonable and poorly supported levels. Among Army recruits, fewer than 6 percent cannot meet the literacy requirement. The University of California is highly selective in its admissions of high schools graduates--but it accepts many students who are not in the top 3 percent.

Are there children who are not succeeding in reading in California schools? Of course. But the patterns of those who are least successful are not changed--overall--from the past. They are likely to be poor kids, minority kids, recent arrivals in poorly supported schools taught by less-well-prepared teachers.

"The task force concluded that the 1987 English-Language Arts Framework did not present a comprehensive and balanced reading program and gave insufficient attention to a systematic skills-instruction program."

This statement infers that the cause of the crisis is what the framework did or did not include. That can by no means be simply established. And many questions were not considered in this rush to judgment: How broadly was the framework implemented? Which teachers were most successful, those who did or those who didn't implement it? How well were teachers and schools supported in the implementation?

The task force is blaming the most informed, dedicated, and successful teachers for the lack of success of the least prepared and least supported teachers. NAEP showed nationally and in California that kids in classrooms where teachers said they used whole language did better than average and kids in strongly phonics classrooms did more poorly. That's true across economic levels.

While claiming balance, the task force is demanding imbalance:

"Skill development is critical in beginning reading. These skills should be explicitly taught and each child's ability should be assessed. Kindergarten students need to develop phonemic awareness.

"In kindergarten, at least one-third of the day should be devoted to language arts. In early primary grades, students should spend at least one-half of the day in reading and other language activities."

If it were left to teachers to decide how to make a sensible curriculum out of this report there would be little negative effect on children. But in the context of crisis, and with the blame placed on holistic instruction for that crisis, the implementation will be far from balanced.

The report mandates isolated skills in the earliest grades. Its time line shows specific focus on phonemic awareness, a laboratory-based procedure of separating sounds in monosyllabic words. The task force wants 1st graders to "automatically recognize 50 high-frequency words." (Seventy-five years of research has shown that the most frequent 50 words are function words hard to learn out of meaningful, grammatical language.) Equally absurd, the report sets a goal of 2nd and 3rd graders recognizing 150 high-frequency words. Most can read, in real stories, far more than that.

The task force wants so much of the isolated "skills" of beginning reading and writing mastered by the middle of 1st grade that there will be heavy pressure on teachers in kindergarten and 1st grade to drop everything that can't easily be measured (listening and discussion, oral language, reading to, with, and by children, comprehension, writing) and focus on direct instruction of isolated "skills": phonemic awareness, letter recognition, word drills, phonics, and "standard conventions of writing," such as handwriting, punctuation, and spelling.

In fact, newspapers have already reported (rightly or wrongly) that this is the intention of the recommendations. A San Francisco Chronicle columnist has already proclaimed that "the wicked whole language is dead."

The new ABC law in California (Assembly Bill 170) takes this imbalance to a legal mandate:

"6022.4. (b) It is the intent of the legislature that the fundamental skills of all subject areas, including systematic, explicit phonics [italics theirs], spelling, and basic computational skills be included in the adopted frameworks and that these skills and related tasks increase in depth and complexity from year to year."

The bill asks that the law take immediate effect because it is, or so the framers insist, "necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety."

There will be strong pressure from boards and administrators on teachers to spend all of the half day the task force has recommended on these isolated "skills," which will mean less time actually spent on social studies, science, humanities, art, music, and physical education as well as functional language.

And we can predict new rounds of news reports that California 3rd graders are failed readers because they have not met the task force's arbitrary goals.

Formation of a task force on reading was a political act in the aftermath of the November 1994 election. And the task force produced a political document. With the ABC law it constitutes a political attack on public education and the most effective teachers. Meanwhile, the same political forces in many other states are demanding copycat mandates and legislative actions.

The California English/language-arts framework reflected rather than led the field. The task force bought the claim of the behavioristic laboratory researchers whom they cite that teachers have moved to whole language out of ignorance of their research. In fact these effective teachers know the research and have made informed choices on behalf of their pupils. Teachers have conducted classroom research to build effective holistic programs.

These teachers will not be converted to teachers of isolated skills. Many would rather stop teaching. Many will close their doors and continue to do what they believe is best. Some will publicly oppose the shift toward direct instruction of isolated skills. And some will be driven out of their classrooms. What an irony, that in the name of a quick cure to an imagined literacy crisis California schools will lose some of their most effective teachers who will not accept the forced choices of a political report.

One thing we can be sure of: California children will suffer in the hysterical rush to impose a political agenda on their literacy education.

Vol. 15, Issue 11, Pages 39, 42

Published in Print: November 15, 1995, as Forced Choices in a Non-Crisis
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