Reading, Writing, and Phonics Coming Back to Calif. Schools Low Test Scores Push Nation's Largest School System to Emphasize Basics

By Loren Stein, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 11, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Reading, Writing, and Phonics Coming Back to Calif. Schools Low Test Scores Push Nation's Largest School System to Emphasize Basics


Loren Stein, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


FOR some educators, it is nothing less than a "battle for the souls of children." For others, it is simply a decision to bring California's educational curriculum "back to the center."

One way or another, the state legislature has sounded a wake-up call to top education officials: Children must be taught the core skills of spelling, reading, and math in the state's public schools.

California's back-to-basics swing - including a return to phonics - mirrors a nationwide trend. The legislature's order to reform the textbooks - known as the ABC bill - takes on added significance here, however, given that this is the country's largest school system, and the largest textbook market.

The bill, passed last week by a unanimous vote, sends a strong message to the state Department of Education that its progressive 1987 comprehensive language-arts program - despite the best intentions - is not measuring up.

Critics say lawmakers are pushing a simplistic solution to a set of complex problems facing the troubled California school system.

Once considered a national model, California schools have declined sharply over the last 20 years. The drop in financial support for schools can, in large part, be traced to the passing of Proposition 13 in 1978, which limited property taxes. California now has the lowest per student spending of all the industrial states and ranks 42nd in the country overall.

Recently released national and state test scores show that the majority of the state's schoolchildren are struggling with math and reading. California's fourth-graders tied with Louisiana's as having the lowest overall reading skills in the 39 states that participated in the national test.

"Despite all our excuses, what we see are abysmal reading and math scores," said Assemblywoman Dede Alpert (D) of San Diego, chair of the Assembly Education Committee and co-sponsor of the ABC bill. "What we're hoping to do is return to the middle and not let the pendulum swing wildly one way or another."

Although touted as a back-to-basics bill - sponsored by three legislators from across the political spectrum - much will be retained from the controversial 1987 curriculum reform program. Rather than being completely rewritten, textbooks will once again include a focus on the fundamentals of grammar, spelling, and arithmetic.

Glen Thomas, director of curriculum frameworks for the California Department of Education, says that the authors of the new curriculum mistakenly assumed that phonics and other essential learning tools would continue to be taught.

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