SACRAMENTO — In 1969, when California began to offer grants for so-called demonstration programs that would encourage better reading and math instruction for low-income students in junior high schools, it seemed to be the right idea at the right time.
The "war on poverty" was still being fought, the nation was sensitive to the problems of the poor and educators were searching for ways to improve the basic reading and math skills of disadvantaged students.
These programs "were designed to show how kids in poor schools could achieve better scores in reading and mathematics--not a bad idea," said Fred Tempes, an assistant state superintendent of public instruction.
But 17 or 18 years later, when Department of Education officials began to review what was formally called the Demonstration Programs in English-Language Arts and Mathematics, they found that in some cases the teaching methods were outdated, state curriculum frameworks were being ignored and California Assessment Program (CAP) test scores were low.
"They were not only bad, they were finely tuned bad," said James R. Smith, deputy superintendent of public instruction for curriculum and instructional leadership.
Yet it has taken two full years to make significant changes because directors of the 30 or so local demonstration projects have effectively lobbied the state Board of Education and the Legislature.
"You have to be careful about funding new programs," Tempes said. "As the years go along, they develop their own constituencies and lobbies and then you can never get rid of them."
Although the math and reading demonstrations are only a $4-million item in the $15-billion state education budget, the effort to revise or eliminate them has taken on symbolic importance.
"They're a legend around here," Smith said.
The fight began when state education officials began to review textbooks, curriculum frameworks and other basic instructional tools after state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig took office in 1983.
"We were looking over the horizon at all the stuff we do," Tempes said, "looking for things we could use to crank up curricular reform."
When evaluators were sent to the math and reading demonstration projects, they found "they were doing the same things they were doing when they started," Tempes said. "That wasn't the idea at all."
For instance, the new state-approved curriculum framework in mathematics stresses the "problem-solving approach to mathematics, where the kids do a lot of hands-on stuff," said Les Pacheco, a junior high school consultant for the Department of Education. But pupils in some of the demonstration projects were working instead with "drill sheets, doing multiplication tables over and over and over."
Twenty years ago, when these programs were started, many educators believed that children learn by linking together "predigested chunks" of knowledge, Smith said, but since then research in cognitive learning and other fields has shown that "when you teach people little skills, the only thing they learn is little skills--they don't make a whole.'
James Tucker, director of a demonstration project at Santa Barbara Junior High School, disputed Smith's claims. He said teachers at some of the demonstration schools "have been more or less on the cutting edge of educational reform in the state."
Teachers at his own school, which ranked in the top one-third in eighth-grade CAP reading scores, provide "probably the purest example of what the state curriculum is trying to do, Tucker added."
But scores at some of the other demonstration schools, even those receiving more than $150,000 a year in special state funds, were among the lowest in California.
For instance, Pacoima Junior High School, in the northeast San Fernando Valley, has been granted almost $2.7 million since entering the program in 1970, yet ranks near the bottom in eighth-grade CAP math scores.
Elaine Lindsay, who has been director of the Pacoima project for many years, defended the accomplishments at this school, which has a high percentage of low-income students, including many who speak little or no English.
"When the program started, we would take 750 incoming seventh-graders each year, some with math skills at fourth-grade level," Lindsay said. "At the end of the year, these very same youngsters would go out at ninth-grade level, at least," as measured by the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS).
But Smith, the deputy state superintendent, said this was "living proof that you can raise test scores without increasing learning." He said the CTBS measures "rote skills" but not "the ability to think" and that the California Assessment Program is a much better way of determining how much mathematics a student actually has learned.
When eighth-grade CAP testing began in 1984, Smith said, "we picked up the fact that these claims of great progress just weren't valid."