Reading & Literacy

Following National Lead, Florida Pushes Phonics Instruction

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 20, 2002 5 min read

Taking his cue from initiatives championed by his brother—both as governor of Texas and now as president—Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida has been rolling out his own brand of reading reform over the past few weeks.

The effort exemplifies a national trend in reading instruction and highlights a continuing debate over whether policymakers are going too far in telling teachers how to approach the subject.

Similar state-level initiatives over the past few years have aimed to raise achievement by focusing on methods and materials that emphasize basic reading skills, including phonics, and that have been shown by research to be effective, said Richard Long, a lobbyist with the International Reading Association.

That trend is expected to continue as more than $5 billion under the federal Reading First initiative, part of President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, is distributed to states over the next six years. (“Some Educators See Reading Rules as Too Restrictive,” Feb. 20, 2002.)

Gov. Jeb Bush

“There is an anticipation that more states will be either using Reading First as the de facto state initiative,” Mr. Long said, “and/or they will be adapting what they already have” to incorporate the tenets of the federal initiative.

Just Read, Florida, as Gov. Bush’s program is called, would tap some $55 million in state and federal money. Under the plan, Florida would undertake an extensive training effort for teachers and provide its 3,100 public schools with an infusion of research-based teaching methods and materials.

“Reading is the greatest challenge in this state, and we need to marshal all our resources,” Gov. Bush told educators at a recent conference on curriculum.

In the Sunshine State, education organizations have publicly praised their governor’s plan for providing more resources to reading. The initiative, which is being released in phases, hinges on $10 million the Republican governor has requested from the legislature for fiscal 2003, as well as $45 million the state could get annually under Reading First.

But many administrators and educators have expressed concern that the program could become too prescriptive and limit teachers’ choices in the classroom.

Mandated Materials?

A Florida education department report released late last month outlining program recommendations includes feedback from administrators, teachers, education associations, legislators, researchers, and parents. A number of the respondents said they were worried that the program would allow state officials to sidestep local decisionmaking and endorse or mandate specific reading programs.

Some critics are convinced that will happen.

“In Florida, we have accumulating evidence that this [initiative] is going to be used to impose the kind of reading hegemony that is the antithesis of what we know is good reading instruction,” said Gloria Pipkin, a longtime Florida language arts teacher and the author of At the Schoolhouse Gate: Lessons in Intellectual Freedom.

“Forget about using real books to teach reading,” she continued. “Teachers are going to be marching students through the [state-adopted] basal and have them answering the questions at the end of the story.” Ms. Pipkin directs the Florida Coalition for Assessment Reform, which lobbies against state intrusion into curriculum and assessment.

Gov. Bush’s program, which was inaugurated by an executive order last September, is designed to make reading instruction more consistent, systematic, and comprehensive statewide. Currently, instructional methods and classroom reading materials vary from district to district and, in many places, classroom to classroom.

A recent survey of the state’s 67 districts found that more than 1,600 different reading programs or strategies were being used. Most of the programs had been in use for several years, but few had been evaluated by local school officials for their effectiveness.

Florida officials say that the state’s disappointing reading achievement is the result of that instructional patchwork. Nearly half the state’s 4th graders and some 60 percent of its 8th and 10th graders did not perform at grade level on last year’s Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

“The current system is not getting us where we want to go as quickly as we want to get there,” said Betty Coxe, the state’s deputy commissioner for educational programs. That system is disjointed, she said, because it features “school-level accountability that places decisionmaking responsibility for curriculum and instruction at the local level, yet assesses [student] progress at the state level.”

Federal Framework

Just Read, Florida is fashioned primarily after Reading First, which uses the framework outlined by a National Reading Panel report released in 2000. That influential report, written by a congressionally mandated panel, defines five essential components of early reading instruction: phonemic awareness (the understanding that words are made up of sounds and letters), phonics (a technique to help youngsters make those associations), fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension.

The Florida initiative, however, expands the scope of change beyond K-3 classrooms to include students through the 12th grade.

The plan takes a multifaceted approach to changing reading instruction, including new textbooks and materials, extensive professional development, increased coursework for preservice teachers, family involvement, and the use of technology.

Commissioner of Education Charlie Crist recently approved new reading materials —six commercial elementary programs in all—that address the five components identified by the national panel. Districts wishing to use other materials will have to pay for them out of their own funds.

The publishers of the state-approved materials have agreed to provide up to 100 hours of professional development for each of the state’s 60,000 elementary school teachers over the next three years. The training will be available through such venues as after-school sessions, summer institutes, and online programs.

Under the plan, aspiring elementary teachers will have to take at least 12 semester hours of coursework in reading to earn state certification, double what is now required. Teacher-candidates for middle and high school positions would need at least one survey course in reading.

State leaders have been trying to quell concerns that the plan is a straitjacket approach. “There has been an unfortunate perception that research-based methodology will somehow limit flexibility of program selection,” said Ms. Coxe, “but that’s not true.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Following National Lead, Florida Pushes Phonics Instruction

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