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Reading by 9

Teach the Teachers

November 29, 1998

A massive summer elementary teacher training program, pushed by Gov.-elect Gray Davis, could pay great dividends for California students if the teachers actually learn how to teach reading and math fundamentals. They need research-based training that is tied to the state's new rigorous academic standards, linked to new textbooks and aligned with the new statewide standardized test. Anything less would be a colossal waste of public money.

A good reading teacher is the best defense against early reading difficulties that can last a lifetime. Many teachers do not know how to provide the explicit, systematic, phonics-based reading instruction now prescribed by the state. They entered the classroom on an emergency credential or took their training during the state's infatuation with sole use of the whole-language method of instruction and were never taught how to teach children the relationships between sounds and letters.

Reading by 9, The Times' early-literacy crusade, recognizes the importance of learning to read in English by age 9 or the end of third grade, because schoolwork becomes more complex after that point. Yet, the majority of California fourth-graders demonstrated no mastery of appropriate reading skills in the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The poor showing on that test provided a wake-up call for Sacramento.

The incoming governor has promised to continue the reform of public education with a special session of the California Legislature in January that will focus on improving teaching, making schools more accountable and having all schoolchildren reading proficiently by age 9. The summer teacher training proposal, the first concrete indication of Davis' plans, is a good place to start to improve our schools and make our students more competitive nationally and globally.

The University of California, known more for education research than practical teacher instruction, is expected to move to the fore on the new teacher training program. Higher education should take a leading role in fixing the public schools, and the responsibility should not be left only to the Cal State system, which trains the majority of California's teachers.

The intensive summer institutes, as outlined by UC President Richard C. Atkinson before the governor-elect's task force on education, would target 6,000 teachers of kindergarten through grade six. They would spend two or three weeks at regional centers run by a collaborative effort of 25 UC, CSU and independent colleges such as USC. Longer would be better.

This proposed Elementary Initiative in Reading and Math is still in the planning stages. When the Legislature considers the plan to improve teacher preparation, first consideration should be given to who will teach the new teachers. Professors who don't believe in phonics need not apply. That includes some CSU professors who refuse to get the message of Charles B. Reed, their new chancellor, who insists that Cal State must train more teachers and train them better. The new summer teacher training would be undermined by education professors who cling to the whole-language method of reading instruction instead of advocating a balanced approach that starts with phonics.

The first round of the summer program should focus on inexperienced K-3 teachers because research shows children who learn to read competently in the primary grades have a better chance at succeeding in school. The state's admirable primary class-size reduction program was harmed, in the eyes of some principals, by a shortage of qualified teachers that resulted in an influx of teachers holding emergency credentials.

When the teachers return to the classroom after summer school, they will get support from veteran teachers who will have attended concurrent summer institutes emphasizing demonstration lessons, coaching and mentoring. The coaching should include how best to teach the phonics-based reading series used by the school. The combination of monthly coaching by mentor teachers and ongoing professional development is already paying off in Houston's schools and should do the same in California. The newly trained teachers should also benefit from monthly follow-up visits by university faculty members and from Internet access to lesson plans and other information intended to keep them on track in their classrooms.

Principals should not be left out of the training. An effective principal who knows how to help teachers get better results can boost test scores for an entire school. Test scores will become even more important in July when the state's ban against social promotion takes effect. No longer will students who cannot do the work be routinely promoted to the next grade. Because principals and teachers will be under greater pressure to succeed, they should have the training they need to do the best job possible.

Gov.-elect Davis' commitment to public education will not come cheap. But if it's done smartly, it won't be as expensive as the neglect of decades. The cost will pale next to the better lives that will result.

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