After his staff trained 2,500 teachers in a reading intervention program for failing students, Los Angeles schools Supt. Ruben Zacarias has ordered an overhaul of the materials because they did not reflect his mandate for step-by-step phonics instruction.
Zacarias called for the changes after receiving complaints that the supplemental program drew on "whole language" methods that have been discarded from state curriculum guidelines, including the use of pictures and other cues in stories to identify words.
"Although staff intended to convey our focus on a phonics-based approach, I don't think the materials I saw clearly convey that message to the troops," Zacarias said. " . . . I think they just didn't do a good enough job of packaging."
The district's $10-million extended learning program is designed to help about 20,000 second- and third-graders who are a year or more behind and could be held back next year if they don't catch up.
The students attend tutoring classes before school, after school and on Saturdays.
The training of teachers for the program is continuing even as district officials begin to revise the materials. An additional 1,100 instructors are scheduled to take the training Saturday, and 500 more next week.
District officials want to expand the program to the second through eighth grades next school year, which will require several thousand additional teachers.
The initial rounds of training have drawn sharp criticism from some of the state's top education officials, who assailed the district for recommending reading strategies that are largely blamed for California's dismal performance on standardized tests.
The state officials said the training conflicts with new language arts standards and a blueprint for reading instruction adopted by the state in December.
Those documents stress the importance of phonics as the foundation for reading instruction, and draw on an array of research that says the key to literacy lies in children grasping the link between sounds and letters.
"It's shocking that they believe giving children the old treatment is going to bring better results," said Alice Furry, director of the state resource center for the California reading initiative. "Haven't they learned that children need to be taught differently?"
Officials said that the intervention program is grounded in phonics but that trainers also are illustrating methods suited to students with varied skill levels. For example, instructors are learning how children who have tackled sounds and letters can use the context of stories to figure out unknown words.
"To learn how to read you must have a key element, and that is the phonics," said Deputy Supt. Liliam Castillo. "But it doesn't' mean you can't use these other things. You can see children doing phonics very well, and if it ends there you lack comprehension. You don't get to the reading."
The training is being conducted by a dozen Los Angeles Unified School District teachers, including five from Reading Recovery, a tutoring program that has its roots in whole language and seeks to get struggling first-graders back on track. Letters and their sounds play a relatively small role in the Reading Recovery program.
Critics say the handouts at the training sessions reflect the Reading Recovery emphasis on using clues in stories to figure out unknown words. Only one of the four handouts prepared for the training focuses on explicit phonics instruction. The training manual on assessment makes only a cursory mention of sounds and symbols.
Zacarias noted the discrepancy.
"If I am a lay person and I see this, I don't literally see the word 'phonics' in the material," he said. "On face value I can see that it's not that clear."
The furor over the reading program erupted last week when a teacher who attended the training contacted district officials with concerns. The instructor, Patrice Abarca, teaches third grade at Heliotrope Avenue Elementary in Maywood. She also is a member of the state Curriculum Commission and helped write drafts of the state's new language arts framework.
Abarca criticized the reading intervention program for downplaying the importance of phonics. She met with Zacarias, Castillo and other school district officials this week to review the materials.
"The training I received does not go in the direction of the state framework," she said. "If they are going to make some changes, great. But it is going to have to be some wholesale changes."
District officials described the training materials as first drafts that will be revised.
"We have absolutely no reservations about rewriting this whole program," Zacarias said.
Several teachers praised the training, saying the sessions provided a valuable mix of methods to serve children with different needs.
"The content of the training was very good. They are giving teachers skills so they can assess students and then use strategies to target the areas where they need to improve," said Teri Ortt, a teacher at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Koreatown. "Any early intervention program entails whole language and phonics."
Susana Melgoza, a teacher at Logan Street Elementary in Echo Park, said she appreciated the different perspectives.
"I thought they covered a little bit of everything," she said. "All my colleagues felt that we received good training."