Push for weaker requirements for reading teachers quickly stalls

An old fight over how to teaching reading has flared in the state Capitol.

The California Teachers Association is having one of its best sessions in years, winning support for a crackdown on charter schools and unusual direct state assistance for districts to pay for ballooning pension costs – freeing up money for teacher raises. But a long-percolating push by the CTA and its allies to renew the reading wars of the 1980s and 1990s by weakening requirements that prospective reading teachers demonstrate mastery of phonics education has quickly stalled.

A gut-and-amend had turned Senate Bill 614 from a measure that would promote early childhood education into an attempt to decrease the qualifications needed to teach reading. But the revised measure was put on hold after the Oakland branch of the NAACP blasted the bill for making it even more likely that students in poor neighborhoods would have unqualified teachers.

The sponsor of SB614 – Sen. Susan Rubio, D-Baldwin Park – rewrote the measure so it would remove language in the Education Code that requires prospective reading teachers to pay for and pass a test demonstrating their knowledge of how phonics work. 

In phonics, students are taught reading by learning the sounds that groups of letters make when spoken. This approach was dropped by California in the late 1980s in favor of “whole language” instruction in which students are expected to figure out the correlation between letters and pronunciation through experimentation. In 1994, the Legislature and Gov. Pete Wilson went back to phonics after concluding that “whole language” had hurt test scores.

Union cited difficulty of phonics requirement

But the latest attempt to undermine phonics training isn’t driven by unhappiness with phonics per se. According to teacher-blogger Rachel Hurd, a 13-year CTA member, in internal communications, the union cited two primary motivations for seeking changes.

1) “The pathway to becoming a teacher in California loses a significant share of candidates at each testing juncture. … Given that candidates also reported that the tests are a financial hurdle and a logistical challenge, there is no doubt that they have a noticeable impact on the pipeline for becoming a teacher in the state.”

2) “The abysmal first-time pass rates for native Spanish speakers, African Americans, and male teacher candidates.”

These rationales outraged George Holland Sr., president of the Oakland branch of the NAACP.

NAACP, reading experts were highly critical

“We must better prepare educators to meet the bar – not eliminate it. Passing SB614 would disregard the science of reading, data about the causes of teacher turnover, the National Reading Project findings, … the California Guidelines for Dyslexia, and the California Constitution,” he wrote on July 5.

Three dozen reading experts from across the nation also issued a letter the same week saying there was overwhelming evidence that phonics worked best.

Rubio’s bill was supposed to be heard by the Senate Education Committee this month. Instead, it was pulled at Rubio’s request before Senate staffers had even finished an analysis of its new content.

It could possibly resurface later in the session.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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