Limitations on Approved Topics for Reading Sessions Rile Teacher Trainers

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Sharon Zinke remembers when she started teaching in California in the 1960s and was asked to swear that she was not a Communist. Some 30 years later, Ms. Zinke, a reading and resource specialist in the Hayward schools near Oakland, must again convince state officials of her adherence to approved doctrine, or suffer the consequences.

This time, though, she and other educators throughout the state say they're being asked to abandon some of their long-held beliefs about how to teach reading or risk being kept off a list of approved consultants.

''In my wildest dreams, I never would have thought it could go this far," Ms. Zinke said. She was referring to the state's push in the past year to compel districts to change the way they teach reading from a whole-language approach to one solidly based on phonics. "I feel like this is the McCarthy era all over again."

Legislation approved earlier this year allocated millions in federal Goals 2000 funding for professional development. The money must be used to train teachers in using explicit, systematic phonics as the basis for their reading lessons. Districts must hire trainers from a state-approved list. ("California Continues Phaseout of Whole-Language Era," July 9, 1997.)

The application process, which requires trainers to sign an "assurance clause," has drawn criticism from educators throughout the state. The clause outlines required topics for training sessions, including: explicit, systematic phonics; awareness of phonemes, the small sounds that make up speech; decoding; spelling; vocabulary; and reading comprehension.

Narrow Approach

But it is what they must promise not to include that has riled many educators. The law prohibits "any program that promotes or uses ... methodologies that emphasize contextual clues in lieu of fluent decoding, or systematically uses or encourages inventive spelling techniques in the teaching of writing," the application says. In other words, the whole-language approach is widely blamed for the poor reading scores of California students.

State lawmakers who supported the legislation have said a screening process is necessary to ensure that the money, set aside specifically to beef up phonics instruction, is used properly.

Yet many educators say the excluded elements are standard tools for teaching reading.

"We were quite concerned that [the legislation] only provides a narrow interpretation of the reading process and could limit staff development to one basic voice or philosophical stance," said Armin R. Schulz, the new president of the California Reading Association and a professor of teacher education at California State University-Stanislaus.

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