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L.A. elementary schools to switch reading programs

The board drops Open Court, which many teachers said robbed them of independence. California Treasures 'is very supportive if you don't have the expertise and respectful of those who do,' says a review panel member.

March 30, 2011|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles school officials have scrapped the elementary school reading program that was a centerpiece of local education reform efforts for the last decade, calling it out of date and overly expensive.

The shelving of Open Court, whose adoption generated controversy, caused barely a ripple when the Board of Education voted 7 to 0 Tuesday to instead use a program called California Treasures.

"Open Court was rigid in its instructions to teachers on how to deliver the program," said Tarltonette Binion, a second-grade teacher at 156th Street Elementary School in Gardena. "This new series is very supportive if you don't have the expertise and respectful of those who do."

Scripted Open Court lessons sparked fury among many teachers for depriving them of their independence. Open Court told teachers what to teach and in what order. Coaches and supervisors made sure rules were followed; periodic tests gauged progress.

One benefit was to achieve a base of rigor at all schools, particularly for the thousands of students who moved from campus to campus. If students entered new classrooms mid-year, for example, they were supposed to be on the same page, in reading at least, as at their previous school.

The system also emphasized phonics, replacing the "whole language" approach that taught reading by exposing students to literature.

"I was getting students who could read, who could write, who could spell.... I don't know what we would have done without it as a district," said Binion, who served on the reading review panel.

Former Supt. Roy Romer made the program, which was one of his key initiatives, mandatory across the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Test scores rose notably, but gains faded in the upper grades and progress was not uniform.

The new teacher guide has the goals of the lesson on one side, and offers teaching strategies, if desired, on the other. Although all students are responsible for learning the same vocabulary, there are different approaches and different readings for students learning English, slower learners and gifted students. And readings related to science and social studies correspond, for the first time, to what students are supposed to be learning in those subjects. There's also a better use of computers and more focus on writing and understanding, proponents said.

But teachers will have to design their own lessons, which could take getting used to, said Mark Gendernalik, a fourth-grade teacher at Shirley Avenue Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley who also reviewed reading programs. And gone will be the days when "a teacher is faced with discipline because they used a worksheet that didn't have an Open Court copyright on it."

The district spent huge sums training and supervising teachers in their use of Open Court. Moving to the new program will be comparatively low-budget, paid for with some one-time economic stimulus funds and money that must be used for teacher training.

The purchase price is $40 million over six years. Custom reprinting of the discontinued Open Court series and supplemental materials would have cost about $90 million over the same period, district Chief Academic Officer Judy Elliott said.

Open Court is no longer state-approved, but districts are still allowed to use it. L.A. Unified considered four programs — two by McGraw-Hill, which publishes Treasures and formerly published Open Court. Only Treasures had a state-approved Spanish-language version. One bidder was knocked out for publishing a news release that appeared to announce that it had won the bidding before the decision had been made.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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