Battle Erupts Over Reading Texts in Tustin

Times Staff Writer

Tension is growing between Tustin teachers and school board members -- not over layoffs or pay but the selection of reading material for elementary school students.

Teachers say they prefer texts published by Houghton-Mifflin because, during a three-month trial, young readers found them more engaging. But school board members say texts published by Open Court should also be considered in the absence of independent analysis on how each set affects learning.

Reading textbooks must be replaced every six years in California. Before being formally selected by trustees, texts recommended by teachers must, by law, be displayed for public review. School boards can choose to display other sets for consideration as well.

The conflict is unusual in the Tustin Unified School District, where educators usually coexist in harmony with school board members and administrators. Also striking is the nature of the debate: Trustees generally become involved in book disputes when there are issues with a text's accuracy or a novel's racial or sexual overtones.

In Tustin, though, teachers say the situation is more about morale than textbook content.

Fifty-one teachers tested the Houghton-Mifflin texts in their classrooms this school year and unanimously recommended their adoption. Both sets focus on phonics, but use different stories and practice methods to hammer those concepts home. Committee members said Houghton-Mifflin better addresses the needs of a variety of students, from English-learners to those reading years above their grade level, and contains stories that children find more captivating.

Kindergarten teacher Pam Campbell said her students loved Houghton-Mifflin for the stories and ditties that accompany each sound. Such strategies, she said, help her make sure students pay attention long enough to learn the concepts.

"I don't think there's any expert who wouldn't agree that motivation is huge," said Campbell, from Red Hill Elementary School. "Both sets do a good job of teaching the mechanics, but Houghton-Mifflin hooks them into the joy of reading."

Trustees say the selection criteria should go beyond whether the books are fun to read. Board member Lynn Davis said he will consider the teachers' recommendation, but he's giving more credence to a University of Oregon study, to be completed in May, that compares the two programs.

He said it isn't fair to ask taxpayers to fund a program without scientific support, even if teachers prefer it.

"In the end, it's not really about the teachers," he said. "It's my responsibility to choose what will provide the best success rate for the students."

Teachers say they resent being second-guessed. Board members should have become involved earlier in the process if they lacked confidence in teachers' abilities to pick the best series, Campbell said.

She was one of more than 100 teachers who attended the board's Monday night meeting to protest the display of the Open Court series. "They are taking the next step to adopt a series that we did not recommend," Campbell said. "Why have a piloting program if teachers' opinions are not going to be valued?"

Exhibiting both sets provides the public an opportunity to comment, said trustee Francine Scinto. "It doesn't mean anything except that we're putting something on display," she said. "It's not precedent-setting to put them all out there."

Cost may become an issue, said district spokesman Mark Eliot. The Houghton-Mifflin set would cost the district about $1.13 million, about $50,000 less than the Open Court series.

Although Davis touted the track record of strong phonics instruction in Open Court, one of the first programs to teach reading using that method, board member Jonathan Abelove wasn't swayed. He and trustee Ann Albertson voted against displaying the Open Court series.

"Just because Open Court has been around since dirt, I'm not impressed by that," he said. "I believe what 51 teachers have experienced for months."

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