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BOARD TO LAUNCH REWRITE OF READING STANDARDS by William Lutz Print E-mail
by Special to DallasBlog.com    Tue, Jun 27, 2006, 11:14 AM

The State Board of Education is about to conduct a major rewrite of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for English, Language Arts, and Reading.

The board will formally adopt an action plan at its July 7 meeting, but members held a work session June 14, where a consensus became clear – the board wants a curriculum rewrite that is shorter, measurable, and reflects the best science on what it takes to teach children to read.

"By looking at the current research in the field of reading and language arts, we have an opportunity to redo the curriculum to match the research and to make a difference in the future of kids’ learning in Texas," said the board’s chairwoman, Geraldine Miller (R-Dallas). "I think this can help us set the pattern for looking at the curriculum in the other subject areas to reevaluate those with current research."

By law, schools must teach the TEKS. It is also the basis for the state’s required standardized tests and textbook adoptions. Therefore, major revisions to the TEKS have substantial legal and classroom significance. The state board adopts the TEKS by rule.

The current TEKS was adopted in 1997 on a 9-6 vote. The first draft, prepared by writing teams assembled by the Texas Education Agency, was widely criticized as vague and lacking phonics. After hearing complaints from the public and board members, a new draft was produced that added some phonics concepts. The compromise had the firm backing of then-education commissioner Mike Moses. It passed the board, but six of the board’s nine Republicans voted no, arguing that the standards were not specific enough and needed more focus.

Another key milestone for the introduction of phonics as the method of teaching reading in Texas classrooms occurred in 1999, when the board last adopted reading textbooks. Miller insisted that the books have sufficient decodable text - words that can be deciphered with phonics rules - to allow teachers to employ a phonics-based strategy for teaching reading.

When the TEKS got adopted, it was agreed that the board would revisit the curriculum in each subject area before issuing a call for new textbooks in that subject. Based on that schedule, it was time to revisit the English, Language Arts, and Reading TEKS.

The board was going to consider a minor revision of the existing English, Language Arts, and Reading TEKS, but board member Don McLeroy (R-Bryan) requested a workshop to discuss the issue in more detail. Afterwards, board members agreed the TEKS needed major changes.

The workshop featured presentations from three national experts on the science of reading: Reid Lyon, Barbara Foorman, and Sandra Stotsky.

"Over the last century," said Lyon, "we’ve, in fact, taught kids to read based on philosophical approaches, literature-based approaches that may not have been tested, whole language approaches that had not been tested to determine their effectiveness. So we have a lot of converging evidence on what it takes to learn to read, why some kids have difficulty, and what you can do about it.

"We know that in order to learn to read, you have to understand the sound structure of the language. That’s what we mean when we’re talking about phonemic awareness…

"Why are the sounds important? Because we read what’s called an alphabetic language. And you’ve got to slap the sounds on top of the letters when you’ve come across a word you’ve never seen. That’s called phonics … Both of them [phonemic awareness and phonics] are absolutely necessary to learn to read, but they are not sufficient…

"Kids who are most at risk for not getting it typically are kids from [economic] disadvantage. They are not read to. They don’t have Dr. Seuss in their ear all the time. They don’t play with the language like a lot of kids from advantage may do.

"So their understanding of sound structure is not as strong as kids who are read to all of the time, play with nursery rhymes, and so on."

Lyon added that speed and vocabulary are essential to reading. "To be able to really understand, you have got to know about 90-95 percent of the words; you’ve got to be able to pronounce them on the page." Lyon advised the board to emphasize development of vocabulary in the curriculum. He said, by using the best science in teaching, schools can dramatically reduce failure rates.

"The [current] standards are picking up a lot of this research," he said. "I was impressed by the very clear language stressing the kinds of elements that a reading-language arts program needs to have with it. Where I was confused with the TEKS was in this repetition of concepts that you see moving grade by grade," he said.

Stotsky emphasized the importance of clear and measurable standards. "You’ve got a lot of good stuff, said Stotsky, "but you’ve got a lot of stuff that you don’t need and it distracts. It’s just noise. It’s either statements that are not standards or statements that are simply repetitions and that serve no intellectual advancement as they stand."

Board members also wanted the standards to be shorter and more easily understood by teachers. Board member Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands) talked about ways the schools in her district tried to clarify the TEKS.

One school district produced a 67-page document to explain the TEKS to teachers. In another school district, teams of teachers leave the classroom for a few days to interpret the current TEKS for their colleagues.

"Teachers shouldn’t have to interpret a standard," Stotsky said. "The academic standards you have across every discipline, K-12, should be understandable by the average citizen. If it isn’t, then there’s something wrong with the standard."

"If you focus on the objectives that are measurable, you’ll quickly see how many you can discard," Foorman suggested.

"You discard the repetitions, and you discard the ones that aren’t measurable, and you’ll probably reduce this document in half," she added.

Miller predicted the board will rewrite the curriculum to make it shorter, clearer, and measurable. "The standards have to be so that they are measurable, and what we have are vague, vague standards, vague curriculum" Miller said. "The standards and the curriculum need to be simplified so that they’re clear."

The degree to which the board can rewrite the curriculum may depend upon the Legislature. HB 1 declared a moratorium on the issuing of new textbook proclamations. Hence, even if the board revises the curriculum to increase the emphasis on phonics and the science of teaching reading, the change will not affect classrooms unless the Legislature is willing to pay for textbooks that reflect the new curriculum.

In the past, lawmakers have balanced the budget by slashing textbook funding. Additionally, there is an effort at the Capitol to change the textbook process to put incentives in place for districts to switch from traditional textbooks to software on laptops.

Such a switch might be lucrative for computer companies (which have an active lobby presence at the Capitol) but could put at risk efforts to update and improve the reading curriculum.

Past technology bills, which did not become law, would have abolished the textbook adoption cycle, which would have meant that the State Board of Education would no longer have the authority to insist on the purchase of new textbooks that reflect the most up-to-date scientific information on reading.

Miller said lawmakers could support the process by passing a bill making phonics the primary method of reading instruction. She also emphasized the importance of providing textbooks and said that money provided in the late 1990s for teacher training helped greatly as well.

Cargill expressed optimism that the board’s latest initiative will help teachers. "[The June 14 work session] still seems like a dream come true," Cargill said, "but the best celebration of all will be the day that our teachers actually have the new and improved TEKS in their hands and can start using clear, concise, measurable, non-repetitive standards with their students."

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