O.C. Schools Ahead of the Learning Curve

Education: State embarks on reforms that emphasize basic reading, math skills---methods the county's teachers have never abandoned.

FOUNTAIN VALLEY—The lesson for the day is the letter B, and Rita Mecherikoff has instructed her first-grade class at Ethan B. Allen Elementary School to comb through magazines, cutting out pictures of bears, babies, boys, boats and broccoli.

Later, Mecherikoff pulls out a bell, bow, ball and brush from her bag, stressing the “b” sound as she repeats each word to the class.

It’s business as usual for Mecherikoff. Like many Orange County educators, she never wholeheartedly embraced the pure, “whole language” approach, whereby children learn to read primarily by being exposed to good literature.

Now, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin has given her stamp of approval to some traditional teaching methods. She announced last week that California schools must resume teaching phonics, spelling and other basic reading and math skills in addition to keeping an emphasis on literature — the very methods Mecherikoff and many other Orange County teachers say they have long practiced.

“Whenever I talk to parents, the first thing they ask is, ‘Do you teach phonics?’ ” said Mecherikoff, a 32-year veteran educator whose school is in the Garden Grove Unified School District. “I’ve always taught phonics, because I don’t know how you could teach reading without it.”

With state officials declaring California’s experiments in progressive teaching methods a failure, many Orange County parents and school officials couldn’t be happier to see the pendulum of education reform swing back to what some consider more traditional practices.

Long regarded as a hub for politically conservative ideology, Orange County is in some ways at the forefront of statewide movements to re-emphasize basic skills and push for reforms of state bilingual education policies that liberals have tended to favor.

“People here are fed up with the so-called progressive ways education has gone, and are sick and tired of watching their test scores go down,” said Bill Lewis, a trustee in the Orange Unified School District. “The way I see it is that liberals have had 40 years to solve America’s problems, and they’ve been proven to be wrong. So it’s time they shut up and go back to ways that work.”

Along with bringing basic reading and math skills back into the classroom, the state Board of Education’s recent decision to allow districts more flexibility in educating non-English-speaking students also is perceived by some as a shift from past liberal approaches.

After months of contentious public debate, the state Board of Education in July decided to allow school districts to go as far as to adopt English-only instruction, as long as they can show that students who aren’t fluent don’t lag. That decision replaced a 14-year-old policy that required school districts with large numbers of non-English-speaking students to teach those children primarily in their native language, whenever possible.

The Westminster School District, which is under state order to increase its number of Vietnamese- and Spanish-speaking bilingual teachers, could be among the first districts to test the state’s new policy. The district plans to apply for a state waiver this fall that will allow it to provide English immersion classes with bilingual instructional aides.

Last fall, Westminster also took the bold step of adopting a resolution that blasted the state’s bilingual education requirements as “unwarranted, unfeasible and counterproductive.”

“The big sticking point was that the state was requiring teachers to take foreign languages, or else they could be transferred out of their classes,” said Michael Verrengia, a Westminster school board member. “We are not right-wing, fanatical conservatives. We basically feel that this is the United States, and kids should be taught English if they’re going to be able to succeed.”

The push to reform bilingual education is not coming exclusively from conservatives; people representing various political views believe changes are necessary. But the state’s loosening of its bilingual policy is viewed by many as a victory for the right because it was heavily lobbied by conservative politicians.

“Conservatives tend to have a very simplistic view of education, and they’re alarmed when they see anything experimental or multilingual,” said David Eskey, a USC professor and director of the university’s American Language Institute, which teaches English to foreign students. “They want to return to the way things were done before.

“With bilingual education, progressive educators are particularly concerned that conservative districts want to get rid of programs that provide any kind of help to ‘non-mainstream’ students.”

Eskey said the debate between phonics and whole language is yet another example of the tug-of-war that sometimes takes place between progressive and conservative educators.

“Progressive educators tend to neglect the fact that students do need to learn basic skills, and conservatives take the view that change represents a breakdown,” he said. “I’m disappointed that people see these issues as either-or. What’s needed is to look at what’s valid and find a reasonable middle ground.”

Indeed, the state’s latest task force report on reading — which was prompted by California’s dismal reading scores — does call for a balanced approach that incorporates a strong literature program as well as basic skills instruction. Task force members said they wanted to avoid the extremes of either methodology, but believe the state must overhaul its teaching methods, textbooks and teacher training techniques to incorporate more skills instruction.

Eastin, a Democrat, said the state’s return to basic skills instruction stems not from politics but from a desire to better educate California’s children. Many other educators agree, labeling the state reforms as a blending of the latest and best thinking.

“I don’t think we can characterize the changes as being conservative, moderate or liberal,” said Alan Trudell, spokesman for the Garden Grove Unified School District. “We’re constantly trying to improve the method of instruction, and we’re just trying to teach students the best way we can.”

But in Orange County, the state’s reforms appear to be largely embraced by educators and parents — at least partly because they promote some conservative sentiments.

“Being a heavily Republican county, I think what you find is people are more comfortable with traditional approaches to education,” said Carol Barnes, a professor of elementary and bilingual education at Cal State Fullerton. “People see the test scores and feel kids aren’t learning, so they want to go back to the ways they learned things.

“But education reform tends to be like a pendulum. It’ll swing far in one direction, and then test scores will plummet and then we’ll say, ‘We’ve got to do something,’ and the pendulum will swing in the other direction.”

After the state adopted its controversial 1987 language arts framework that stressed the “whole language” approach, some California educators interpreted it as a call to eliminate skills instruction.

But in Orange County and many other communities, school officials and teachers said they never fully abandoned traditional teaching methods because they knew many of those ideas worked, and parents wanted them to teach basic skills.

“One of the things we found is that we’re already conforming to a lot of the things the state superintendent is suggesting,” said Mac Bernd, superintendent of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. “In this business, it’s easy for educators to get on whatever bandwagon that’s in vogue. But in Newport-Mesa, we’ve tried to incorporate only what makes sense. Our community has always been concerned about basic skills, so we never lost that.”

Bernd said his district even delayed adopting a math textbook series because school officials were concerned that the textbooks did not strongly cover fundamental skills.

The district also voted in May, 1994, to require parental permission before
eighth- and 10th-graders could take the now-defunct California Learning Assessment Systems test. Bernd said school officials mostly were concerned about the controversial nature of certain test questions, but he said educators and parents also were dismayed that the test did not stress more basic skills.

Alexis Booher, who this year transferred her children from the Newport-Mesa Unified School District to the Huntington Beach City School District, said she has witnessed how parents pressure local school officials to adopt certain educational practices.

“I’ve attended meetings where parents complained about the ‘whole language’ approach and wanted to go back to the way things were in the ’50s,” Booher said. “Their attitude was: ‘Let’s just do it the way we used to do it when we were kids.’ Personally, I feel we should move onward and upward.”

But Janet Laird, whose children are enrolled in the Anaheim Union High School District, said she supports the move back to basics because she believes students are not learning proper language skills.

“What’s being emphasized is that kids should write without worrying about their punctuation or spelling, but they need to learn how to spell and how to use proper grammar,” she said. “Children need to have the basics.”

Although “whole language” advocates believe that the state’s call for more basic skills instruction was motivated by conservative politics, it’s clear that other recent state reforms are far from being traditional.

This month Eastin announced plans to radically reconstruct California’s educational system by freeing school districts from virtually every rule in the education code, in return for a commitment from the districts to meet higher standards.

Eastin said under the plan, she will work to lower class sizes, introduce more technology, increase parental involvement and apply stiffer graduation requirements.

Pat Wayne, PTA president at the Saddleback Valley Unified School District, said she welcomes many of the reforms coming down from the state, regardless of how they may be perceived by political groups.

“I think the state superintendent realizes the path we’ve been on hasn’t been working all that well, and that we need to re-examine it and shake it up,” she said. “Personally, I hope they keep what’s good about progressiveness and bring back what’s good about tradition.”

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