Calif. Rejects Requests To Buy Unapproved Texts

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The California state school board has rejected most of the first round of requests from districts seeking to use state money to buy unapproved texts that local officials say truly bring balance to a school's reading program.

Although the first group of petitions was small, with three districts submitting four waiver requests, the rejections are being viewed as a predictor of how strictly the board will follow the directives of the state legislature when reviewing future requests.

In rejecting three requests and postponing action on the fourth, at its most recent meeting this month, the state board said that none of the districts had argued convincingly that the state-approved materials do not best serve students.

The rebuffs, which are the latest move in a continuing battle between some educators and state officials over appropriate reading texts and pedagogy, also represent a departure from previous practice when the board routinely granted such waivers, according to local and state officials.

"It's safe to say that the board is taking a very conservative view," said Ruth Ann McKenna, the chief deputy superintendent for educational policy, curriculum, and department management for the state education department.

Ever since California's test scores plummeted on national reading assessments, state officials have been scrambling to correct the problem. The board last year adopted texts that promote what state officials have called a balanced approach to reading instruction. Others, however, suggest that the board went overboard in adopting books that place more emphasis on phonics and basic skills than did the last generation of whole-language reading materials that California adopted. ("Calif. Text Adoption Puts Emphasis on Phonics," Jan. 15, 1997.)

Of course, districts can buy whatever instructional materials they want--with their own money. But they must comply with the approved list if they want the state to pitch in substantially.

The state provides $28 per child, 30 percent of which can be used to purchase nonadopted materials. However, the legislature allocated an additional $80 per child last year for new K-3 reading materials that emphasize basic skills.

Cases Unproved

Three of the state's 1,000 districts came forward this spring to request waivers from the reading texts, including the Clovis district, which has gained a reputation statewide for its established, balanced reading program.

Ms. McKenna recommended that the board approve them all.

But in a letter to board Chairwoman Yvonne W. Larsen, Greg Geeting, a consultant to the board and, until recently, its executive director, advised the board to reject the proposals. He said that none proved that "the state-adopted instructional materials do not promote the maximum efficiency of pupil learning in the district," a requirement of the state education code.

Replacement texts, as with those on the state list, must adhere to a state law also passed last year requiring that reading programs include instruction in systematic, explicit phonics, phonemic awareness, and spelling.

"The board clearly is looking very carefully at the law and is ... paying special attention to these waivers," said Bill Lucia, the board's executive director.

None of the districts submitting requests reviewed all of the materials thoroughly, he claimed.

The board did approve a single waiver for mathematics texts.

Filling in the Gaps

Critics charge that the board is taking a harder stance. They recall that few, if any, requests to use phonics-based books, after the adoption of whole-language texts a decade ago, were denied.

But Ms. Larsen said that although the board has been responsive in approving petitions in the past, the additional funding provided by the legislature is far more prescriptive and does not allow the board the same flexibility.

Local educators argue that the 16 sets of adopted reading materials need to be supplemented to ensure a comprehensive and balanced reading program. School districts have until September 1998 to seek the waivers.

"The materials adopted by the state board are excellent materials, but we were trying to fill in some gaps," said Daniel E. Kaiser, the associate superintendent of instructional services for the Clovis school district near Fresno. "We pride ourselves on having an outstanding approach to teaching reading, but I think the board is going to be very hesitant to approve any waivers," he said.

For some educators, the rulings do more than limit their options in the classroom; they are a slap in the face of local control.

"The waiver process is a fundamental tenet of local control," said Daniel Callahan, the assistant superintendent for educational services in the Santee elementary district in San Diego. "On the one hand [board members] want local districts to be more accountable, yet ... they are telling local districts what is best for kids and families and school districts."

Now, Mr. Callahan said, local school officials are likely to outline their arguments more painstakingly. "We are glad that some people went early and left some lessons for the rest of us."

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Web Resources
  • Read a draft of the 1996 California Reading Initiative, which outlines the state's strategy to reform reading instruction.
  • "Teaching Reading: A Balanced, Comprehensive Approach to Teaching Reading in Prekindergarten Through Grade Three," published by the California Department of Education, offers guidance for teachers in implementing the states guidelines regarding teaching reading that employs "systematic, explicit phonics, spelling, and basic computational skills."
  • Read about funding for California's reading programs and "Core Reading Program Instructional Materials." These explain how new education code provisions authorize school districts and county offices of education to apply to the State Board of Education for funding to purchase a complete set of core reading program instructional materials for each pupil in kindergarten and grades 1 through 3.
  • The Great Debate Revisited. Art Levine, in The Atlantic Monthly, December 1994. Contention between proponents of the "meaning first" and the "phonics first" approaches to literacy goes back more than a century. That the former is now in the ascendant, the author argues, should be cause for concern.
  • The Whole Language FAQ: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions. Answers to questions such as "What are good books to read on whole language?" are answered by subscribers to the Teachers Applying Whole Language Discussion List, an on-line mailing list.
  • 1994 Reading Report Card. A status report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Among its findings: The average reading proficiency of 12th grade students declined significantly from 1992 to 1994.

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