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Learning from Calif., Texas Reforms: Both states have ambitious plans for improving pupils' reading performances.


California, the first state to make a huge, costly mistake in reading instruction, is mounting a huge, costly movement to fix it.

While it's too early to see results, the strategy is being hailed by reading experts around the country as a model for other states, such as Maryland, that are grappling with dismal reading performance.

In Maryland, schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is pushing hard for tougher teacher training requirements, and a task force is studying how schools should teach reading. But so far, that nascent movement is not nearly as ambitious as those in California and Texas.

California has hit the problem from every angle, with prescriptive laws and $2.8 billion over the past two years, most of it to reduce class size.

"They were willing to say, 'What we're doing isn't working, let's wipe the slate clean and start over with the best information we can find,' " said Louisa Cook Moats, an authority on reading and teacher preparation who advised in California's reform.

"They took the broadest possible view of systemic change."

The state is forcing an overhaul of reading training at education colleges, creating a "performance" test for new teachers, and paying for new classroom materials and the retraining of existing teachers.

The changes began in 1995 with citizen outrage, when California fourth-graders tied for last place among 39 states on a nationwide reading test.

The slide was blamed on California's 1987 embrace of "whole language," which emphasizes exposure to literature, sight reading and guessing words from context and pictures rather than sounding them out, as with phonics.

California was the first state to adopt that method, but the trend swept the nation, including Maryland, where fourth-graders ranked 27th among 39 states on the reading test in 1994.

The pressure got to California's legislators, who began passing laws emphasizing basic skills.

Educators searched for the most reliable scientific studies on reading and brought in leading researchers for advice -- people such as Moats, who now runs clinical studies in Washington, and Marilyn Jager Adams, author of "Beginning to Read," who as an (( unpaid consultant wrote California's blueprint for reading.

Among other studies, the state relied on research supported by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Since 1996, the California Legislature has passed 11 laws to get schools and colleges into line with the new research and has invested $2.8 billion to reduce class size in early grades from an average of 30 students to 20, buy new materials and train teachers.

Each of the state's 76 education colleges must submit to an independent review this year and prove that its reading program complies with the reforms; those that don't could be closed.

And starting this fall, all elementary school teaching candidates must pass a performance test to be certified. That test will be given by an organization independent of the colleges, adding another layer of accountability.

All the new requirements are tied to a voluminous body of research that concludes that many beginning readers need training in "phonemes," the individual speech sounds and systematic, explicit phonics -- connecting sounds to letters -- as well as exposure to literature.

In one training video, Sacramento County teacher Mary Scott teaches phonemes to a group of kindergartners. She displays pictures of a tent, a rake and a snake and asks the children which words rhyme and why. One boy, Alex, picks out "rake" and "snake."

"They have the same last sound," he explains.

Next, for a lesson in blending sounds, Scott shows the children a picture of Rocky the Robot, who talks in phonemes because that's how robots talk. He says DUH-- OG when he means to say DOG, the teacher says.

"Sometimes he might say MM--OM. What's he trying to say?"


The changes haven't always been smooth. Thousands of new textbooks don't reflect the new research. And $39 million initially spent on teacher retraining was largely wasted on misinformed training, prompting legislators to tie the next round of funding -- $52 million -- to specific requirements.

Educators say they're seeing better performance in many classrooms, but the state has a long way to go in changing its culture. The research isn't embraced by some key education groups that influence teachers and administrators, said Alice Furry, assistant superintendent in Sacramento County's Office of Education.

The changes have also drawn resistance from college professors who don't like political decrees. Some worry that the benefits of whole language will be lost and that teaching candidates -- forced to take a performance test -- will leave the state, compounding the teacher shortage.

"If we were to legislate that doctors had to use certain methods, there'd be an uproar," said Joanne Rossi, a reading instructor at the College of Notre Dame in San Mateo, who laments that whole-language theoreticians such as Ken Goodman were ignored in the initiative. "We're talking about issues of academic freedom and professionalism."

Others say the laws wouldn't be necessary if education professionals hadn't so eagerly accepted unproven teaching methods. And, as a practical matter, the laws brought money, said Marion Joseph, a state Board of Education member and a catalyst for the changes.

"There was no way to do this without legislation," she said. "Suddenly someone was telling them: 'You have to teach this.' With what? They needed new materials, textbooks. They needed training."

Where California has used prescriptive laws, Texas is being watched for its bottom-up approach, powered largely by folks outside the education establishment.

After Gov. George W. Bush declared a goal in 1996 of having all children reading at least on grade level by the end of third grade, a group of 100 CEOs from major companies -- the Governors Business Council -- mobilized.

They consulted some of the same studies as California and teamed up with top reading researchers and the governor to stage "summits" for community and education leaders.

"We do not feel that the public should pay for any more of this debate inside of education," said Darvin M. Winick, the group's adviser.

Meanwhile, Texas appointed an assistant commissioner for reading, set standards for reading instruction and hired Jean Osborn, a reading expert from the University of Illinois, to write advisories and design workshops for schools.

An independent group is working to reform teacher certification requirements.

And last year, the Texas Legislature passed a law requiring schools to use a diagnostic test on all children in kindergarten through second grade to check for reading deficits. The idea is to help struggling pupils early -- something that research shows is highly effective in kindergarten and first grade, but takes about four times longer in fourth grade.

Texas' philosophy is that the state should set standards, disseminate research, let schools fix the problem -- and hold them accountable, reformers there say. Toward that end, the state has awarded $32 million over two years -- plus $27 million in federal grant money -- to schools that launch research-based programs.

Douglas Carnine, a University of Oregon reading expert, says all states can learn from Texas and California.

"In both," he said, "there's a comprehensive plan that's going to do something. The only question is the degree of prescriptiveness. The key to this is getting a document that lays out the research, and a plan."

In Maryland, the State Board of Education is expected to vote this month on Grasmick's proposal to require four reading courses for all new elementary school teachers, and two reading courses or the equivalent for middle and high school teachers.

The plan says that teachers should be well-versed in a variety of research-based methods and in diagnosing reading problems.

But critics, mostly education professors, argue that instead of prescribing courses, the state should require a performance test and let colleges decide how to deliver the instruction.

Grasmick says her proposal is only the beginning of a comprehensive strategy that may include a performance exam.

But like most reading experts, Grasmick sees the root of the problem in the colleges, many of which are entrenched in whole language and are sending ill-prepared teachers into classrooms; she wants more and better courses, quickly.

The Johns Hopkins University has given its support and is preparing to launch the changes next fall.

"I feel a sense of urgency," Grasmick said.

Part of the urgency is that she wants to keep the General Assembly from taking reading instruction out of educators' hands, as legislatures are in a growing number of states.

Del. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, filed a bill Feb. 6 that would designate phonics as the primary method for teaching reading in Maryland's schools.

Grasmick argues that such a route would make education dangerously susceptible to the "whims" of those who happen to be in power.

"It would open a Pandora's box that would never close," she said.

Pub Date: 2/16/98

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