A growing controversy over math instruction and reading test scores that rank California with Mississippi near the bottom of the academic heap have prompted state schools chief Delaine Eastin to consider overhauling the state’s nationally acclaimed instructional guidelines in both subjects.
California has been considered a national model since it began reforming reading and math education a decade ago to embrace progressive theories about how children learn. But many now concede that the reforms have gone too far, falling flat in the classroom and leaving a legacy of confusion that may be undermining student achievement.
“The test scores say we have . . . some serious problems and we need to take the time to fix them,” said Eastin, who is meeting with education leaders around the state to marshal support for a plan to have task forces reconsider every aspect of math and reading instruction, including textbooks, teacher training and curriculum guidelines.
“I’m going to take some of the best and brightest in California and put them in a room and ask them to give us a real strategic battle plan,” Eastin said in an interview with The Times.
The idea seems to have struck a chord among superintendents and school board members, who have raised similar concerns in the past, with little response from Sacramento.
Eastin plans to announce the makeup of the panels--which will include parents, teachers, business leaders and education experts--next month, at the same time as the release of results of California’s performance in state and national tests--scores that she acknowledged will be abysmal.
Two years ago, the National Assessment of Education Progress ranked California fourth-graders ahead of only those in Mississippi, the District of Columbia and the island of Guam in reading, and reported that more than half the students tested could not understand simple texts, identify obvious themes or summarize what they had read.
Scores on the California Learning Assessment System (CLAS) tests released a year ago identified similar problems in reading, and math scores on the state test were even worse.
Eastin’s willingness to rethink reading instruction will add fuel to one of the most hotly debated issues in all of education--whether reading should be taught through phonics, which systematically introduces the sounds of individual letters and syllables to prepare students to read, or “whole language,” which assumes that readers use memory, context and creativity to figure out the meaning of words.
California was a leader in embracing the “whole-language” approach, which encourages primary-grade teachers to read aloud from classic storybooks, such as “The Little Engine That Could,” but to avoid forcing students to “sound out” words as teachers traditionally have.
In math, Eastin’s move will spark discussion over the state’s de-emphasis of paper-and-pencil calculations in favor of allowing students to solve problems by whatever means they want as a way of demonstrating their mathematical “power.” Critics say many of the textbooks on a list approved last fall by the state Board of Education take that philosophy to an unwise extreme and ignore the basic building blocks of math.
Eastin said she hopes to receive recommendations from the task forces within four months and to begin implementation soon after. She plans to ask Gov. Pete Wilson to divert $1 million from other educational planning efforts to improving reading and math.
Observers in Sacramento said the political stakes are high for Eastin. If the test scores are as bad as has been rumored for the past several months, they could touch off a public relations disaster. That might further weaken support for public schools and undermine her leadership, even though she was not in office when the tests were taken or the frameworks written.
Eastin acknowledged that she must seize the momentum on the issue and not go on the defensive, as the Department of Education did a year ago when concerns were raised about the content and methodology of the CLAS tests--which were eventually scrapped because of the public uproar.
“I want to have the department meet this problem head on and I’m not afraid to say ‘stop the presses’ on the frameworks,” Eastin said. “This department has been in the bunker before. We got defensive . . . and it cost us dearly. When the public says consistently there’s a problem in reading or math, we really ought to stop and take stock.”
Maureen DiMarco, Wilson’s top education adviser, applauded Eastin’s willingness to re-examine the frameworks. “It is very clear that when they took the phonics out of the reading program there were fewer children who were learning to read,” she said. “The math is the same thing . . . it will make things worse.”
Classroom teachers began introducing “whole language” several years ago, encouraging students to write and talk about their reaction to stories and doing away with fill-in-the blank work sheets that drilled students on isolated skills, such as word recognition. But many went too far.
“What happens when we get direction from the state is that we throw out all the good things we know about good teaching and learning,” said Eva Long, who is now superintendent of schools in Davis.
Now, stung by falling test scores, many districts are changing course again, adding phonics and spending thousands of dollars per student on tutoring programs that help those who missed out on reading the first time around.
“We’re trying to take a common-sense approach,” said Carl Cohn, superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District. “The bottom line is we want some results that work for kids, so we have encouraged teachers to use eclectic approaches--the best of ‘whole language’ . . . coupled with other approaches.”
Bill Honig, the former state superintendent who was in office when the frameworks were written by an appointed curriculum commission, said the reliance on “whole-language” teaching has cost California’s students dearly.
“We had a movement . . . that got bought by too many people . . . and the framework was part of the confusion,” he said. “It did say you have to have a skills program, but it was not specific.”
He cited research concluding that good readers recognize words and word patterns effortlessly, leaving them to focus on the meaning of what they are reading. To achieve that, he said, students must be systematically introduced to word patterns through extensive, but programmed, reading.
Children should begin reading by no later than the middle of the first grade and should be reading well by the third grade, or they may never catch up, he said.
Now, a third of California students are not reading at all by that point, Honig said, and test scores are falling.
But “whole-language” advocates reject both the concern about test scores and the identification of their philosophy as part of the problem.
Kenneth Goodman, one of the “whole language” movement’s best-known theorists and an education professor at the University of Arizona, said California’s reading test scores should not be blamed on its framework and that the results that are most important cannot be measured by tests.
The hallmark of the success of “whole language” is that children are reading more for pleasure, more children’s books are being purchased and pupils are doing more writing in school, he said.
“That is a major change. It’s going to be too bad if California starts making wholesale changes because someone thinks test scores are falling,” he said.
Marian Joseph, a retired education official who has been campaigning against the “whole-language” approach for years, said some observers will want to characterize the debate as pitting “the basics” against “literature.” But, she said, that misses the mark.
“The literature part (of the framework) is great, but the problem is that somehow we didn’t think we needed to teach the children how to read,” she said.
Eastin is far from alone in her concerns about the upcoming test scores. In a letter to Eastin, the president of the California School Boards Assn. said reading “is truly a crisis” for the state. The organization has its own reading task force readying a report.
Math entered the spotlight last fall, when the normally routine adoption of new textbooks by the state board became a battleground over the curriculum guidelines. Then, opponents of the new math used a portion of the CLAS test to argue that the skills most valued by framework proponents had little to do with math.
They cited a problem that asked students to determine how many days it would take to replant a forest of 3,000 trees if one student plants two trees the first day, two students each plant two trees the second day, four students each plant two trees the third day and so on. After calculating an answer, students were asked to write a letter to the principal to explain their reasoning.
The teacher-evaluators gave those who wrote more sophisticated letters higher grades than they gave those who came closer to getting the math right, but whose letters were less persuasive.
Kathryn Dronenburg, a state board of education member from El Cajon, said critiques such as those motivated her to ask her colleagues to issue a memorandum clarifying the board’s thinking on the math framework and the new textbooks.
“Enriching mathematical content does not mean abandoning such essential . . . skills as number facts, multiplication and division, fractions and decimal equivalents, percentages, proportional relationships, rates and ratios,” the memo said.
Honig, who built his national reputation on the state’s bold reforms, said the guidelines for both reading and math instruction contain progressive ideas that should be retained. But, he said, they and their backers have gone too far. “The true believers have got to get off the idea that they have all the answers,” he said.