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State's Reading, Math Reforms Under Review as Scores Fall

March 23, 1995|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

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."

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