Groups Outline Steps To Boost Reading, Math

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Twelve of the nation's leading education groups pledged last week to work together--in concrete ways--to improve the teaching of reading and mathematics.

Delegates to a summit called by the Learning First Alliance, an umbrella organization formed last fall, signed off on "action papers" detailing what steps should be taken in the two core subjects to enhance student achievement.

Gordon M. Ambach

The 125 delegates here, acknowledging that they haven't always coordinated their efforts in the past, promised to focus on three areas: professional development; engaging parents and the public in efforts to improve schools; and ensuring that instruction, curriculum, and materials are grounded in "the best available and proven research."

The alliance is made up of groups representing teachers, state and local school boards, administrators, principals, parents, state policymakers, curriculum specialists, and teacher-educators. ("New Alliance Endeavors To Put Schools First," Oct. 1, 1997.)

The commissioned papers, written by teams of experts and vetted by outside commentators and the summit delegates, will form the basis for the alliance's work.

Anne L. Bryant

In math, the goal should be for every child to complete a challenging K-12 curriculum that includes mastery of introductory algebra and geometry by the end of 9th grade, according to a summary of the paper for that subject. Only about 25 percent of American students now meet that goal.

And the reading paper argues that it is "essential to focus on practices grounded in research" and to "call off the 'reading wars'" that have raged between supporters of phonics and whole-language instruction.

What most impedes change in mathematics instruction, the math paper concludes, is the fact that the average teacher in grades 5-9 has a limited knowledge of the subject and of research about teaching it at those grade levels.

'Turning Point'

Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the participating groups, called middle-level math "the real soft spot in the whole of teaching and learning in this country."

The Allied Organizations

Following are the national organizations that have formed the Learning First Alliance:

American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education

American Association of School Administrators
Arlington, Va.

American Federation of Teachers

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Alexandria, Va.

Council of Chief State School Officers

Education Commission of the States

National Association of Elementary School Principals
Alexandria, Va.

National Association of Secondary School Principals
Reston, Va.

National Association of State Boards of Education
Alexandria, Va.

National Congress of Parents and Teachers

National Education Association

National School Boards Association
Alexandria, Va.

Mr. Ambach said the paper's specificity marked an important turning point for the alliance's members and signaled a genuine commitment to work together. "I can assure you that you've never seen organizations come together to say that in grades 5 to 9, we've got a problem in mathematics, and we're going after it," Mr. Ambach said at a press conference here.

In the reading paper, alliance members say they hope to move beyond the pedagogical debate that often has mired policymakers and educators.

"Educational practice must come to be based on evidence--not ideology," an executive summary of the paper says. But, it cautions, "this is not to say that we know everything we need to know to ensure reading for all."

The paper asserts that the nine months of 1st grade are "the most important in a student's schooling" because children begin to define themselves as good or poor readers. But it concludes that it is also in 1st grade that "common instructional practices are probably most inconsistent with research findings."

It is probably best to start all children with well-sequenced phonics, or sounding out, instruction early in 1st grade, the executive summary says. Those who acquire reading easily can move quickly through phonetic instruction. And comprehension, a priority of the whole-language method, should be taught alongside decoding at this time, it says, using appropriate reading materials.

"If we started today," the summary says, "we could ensure that virtually every healthy child born in 1998 would be reading at or above the basic level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress by age 9." Similarly, it says, every student now in elementary school would graduate from high school "a reader."

Grounded in Research

To provide some context for last week's summit, the Learning First Alliance commissioned a poll of American's views on seven issues in reading and math.

The poll, conducted Jan. 13-15 by Lake Sosin Snell Perry and Associates Inc., a Washington-based firm, turned up evidence that "the reading wars" are no longer an arcane issue. A majority of those polled, or 53 percent, said they had heard about the controversy over whole language vs. phonics.

The telephone poll of 1,000 registered voters also found that one in four respondents admitted to having a fear of math, either when they were in school or as an adult. The survey has a margin of error of 1 to 3 percentage points.

To strengthen teacher professional development and provide guidance for state and local policymakers who fund it, the alliance plans to write "research-based criteria" for making choices about these learning experiences. The bottom line must be a link to improved student achievement, said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association.

The alliance also plans to draft criteria to help policymakers and educators make sure that textbooks, computer software, curriculum packages, and other materials are grounded in research.

Ruth Wattenberg, the director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers, said that good diagnostic tools are available to help teachers evaluate young children's reading progress. The alliance, she said, could pull these materials together and make a research-based case that they should be used in professional-development programs.

Some of the participating organizations are also making related plans to work together. The AFT and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, for example, are discussing working together to create a model or core curriculum for reading that would be taught to elementary teachers.

No Lobbying Allowed

While participants said the summit marked a breakthrough in cooperation by the member groups, they don't plan to do their work alone. Instead, work groups will reach out to subject-matter and professional associations and civil rights groups, delegates said.

Mr. Ambach and Ms. Bryant said they expect the state affiliates of the national organizations involved in the alliance to form their own networks to move the new agenda. While education groups already work together in many states, Mr. Ambach said, they typically lobby legislatures rather than focus on teaching and learning.

The Learning First Alliance's founders made an early decision not to lobby, Ms. Bryant said.

Cecil Short, the president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, called the meeting a "bonding" experience. "This is like synchronized swimming," he said, "and before, we were just all in the pool doing our own strokes."

The summit was supported by the Ford Motor Co. and the Kansas City, Mo.-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

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