Teachers bitter as divided board expected to alter curriculum today
By GARY SCHARRER | Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
May 23, 2008
AUSTIN — A bitterly divided State Board of Education voted Thursday on new English language arts and reading standards that infuriated teacher groups whose recommendations were cast aside.
The board's social conservatives, joined by Republican moderate Geraldine Miller of Dallas and San Antonio Democrat Rick Agosto, prevailed, 9-6, for a plan that features a back-to-the-basics approach for grammar and reading comprehension. A final vote on the plan is scheduled for today.
The standards will dictate English language arts and reading textbooks starting in the 2009-10 school year and will last for about a decade.
"Most of the teachers in this state are going to be furious," said Alana Morris, past president of CREST (Coalition of Reading and English Supervisors of Texas).
"The kids in Texas won't have comprehension in their textbooks so they won't be taught the skills they need to comprehend text — so we will continue to have boards like this with people who can't comprehend simple things like teacher input," Morris said.
Board member Mary Helen Berlanga of Corpus Christi, said: "It's a very sad day in Texas when we support a document that has no input from teachers ... It's really a disgrace and sad for our children."
For some board members, though, it came down to process and a different educational approach. The prevailing side wants grammar taught separately instead of incorporating it in the context of writing.
"We believe you need to know those skills first, and then you can incorporate them into your writing," said member Terri Leo, R-Spring. "We feel the other side thinks that you are going to learn things by osmosis, by just writing."
The existing approach is not adequately preparing students for college, Leo said, noting the significant need for remedial work necessary before college students acquire basic writing skills.
Board Chairman Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, said neither approach is particularly wrong nor right. "But you are going to vote for the one you believe in," he said.
Leo said she and other board members represent more than teacher groups.
"My district, for the most part, supports going back to those basic skills," she said.
The board voted unanimously in March on a tentative plan, calling for teachers and others to improve a document published in the Texas Register, which serves as the official bulletin of state agency rule-making.
Was process tainted?
Some board members accused teacher groups of hijacking the process by pushing their own document instead of the one tentatively approved by the board.
"The process has become a joke and a mockery," said Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond , calling it "contaminated and a circus."
But the narrow vote should leave Texans without any confidence in the new curriculum, said Patricia Hardy, R-Fort Worth.
"I don't think it bodes well for the state board to be split on these issues. It's a really heavy ideological thing, and the frustrating thing is I don't know why," she said.
Educators from 17 literacy organizations representing 13,000 English language arts and reading teachers worked on the new curriculum standards.
"And, in the end, it was completely discounted," said Cindy Tyroff from San Antonio's Northside ISD and the Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts. "Teachers are going to be offended."
In addition to the problems with grammar instruction, teacher groups also object to the de-emphasis of reading comprehension in the proposed plan.
"There are few standards sprinkled throughout the reading portion of the document, but it's a very haphazard approach," she said.
Agosto, the lone Democrat voting for the plan, said the board could improve the document before the final vote today with amendments incorporating some of the teachers' recommendations.
"I'm just trying to salvage what work has been done with those teachers," he said, emphasizing that his was not the decisive vote. "We still have some more work to do."
Board Vice Chairman David Bradley, R-Beaumont, said he would offer amendments reflecting some of the suggestions by teachers and education groups.
But any changes are not likely to budge many members from their votes, said board member Lawrence Allen Jr., D-Houston
"If you are going to affect the educational process in the state of Texas, the most important people included in that should be the teachers of the state of Texas," Allen said. "We heard excellent testimony from a number of individuals from across the state, but it fell on deaf ears, I believe."