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The Reason Bill Honig and The California State Department Cannot Claim Ignorance In California's Adoption of Whole Language Programs In 1988

Testimony before California Board of Education, 8 September 1988

Professor Richard C. Anderson, Director, Center for Study of Reading, University of Illinois.

"I have been asked to appear before you by members of the State Assembly's Education Committee, who are concerned about the current textbook adoption in reading and English.

[Permit me to note that I am not receiving a fee for making this presentation. I have no financial interest in any program considered in this adoption. My expenses are being paid by a not-for-profit public service organization.]

Five years ago, the National Academy of Education and the National Institute of Education formed a Commission on Reading, on which I served as chairman. In l985 the commission produced a small book, Becoming a Nation of Readers (BNR), that has been widely accepted as authoritative both in the research community and among practical educators. The California English/Language Arts Framework has incorporated a number of specific points from BNR, as well as more broadly endorsing the whole document. On a recent press release, the Curriculum Commission and State Department of Education claimed, once again, to be acting in the spirit of BNR.

As someone involved in education reform whose writing has been invoked by educators in this state, please let me make three points about textbook adoption as it is now unfolding in California.

First, in my judgment, the English/Language Arts Framework is an appropriate tool for reforming reading and language arts instruction in California schools. Generally speaking, the practices and approaches it encourages are the right ones, from a research point of view, for the state to be putting its moral force behind.

But, second, the process of actually evaluating programs appears to have been deeply flawed. It seems to have produced a recommendation to adopt some programs, and reject others, that is inconsistent with California's own Framework. Notably, I was shocked to learn that Open Court Reading and Writing received a negative evaluation. I believe this is one of the best programs available, one that comes closer than most to exemplifying the letter and spirit of the Framework. The Open Court program features strong phonics, good literature, integrated reading and writing, and well-designed direct instruction in the reading and thinking strategies that promote comprehension.

I think I know why Open Court Reading and Writing was among the programs recommended for rejection. There is a pattern among the rejected programs: All of them have a reputation for intensive phonics instruction in the lower grades.

Educational research in the United States has consistently shown that children make more progress in reading, on the average, when they receive systematic phonics instruction in the early grades. Why, then, were programs known for strong phonics recommended for rejection, especially since the Framework endorses phonics instruction? My hunch is that the main reason is the changing winds of ideological fashion. Something called the "whole language" movement has an enthusiastic following in California reading circles. Much about this movement is positive; it stands for genuine literature, integrating reading and writing, and natural approaches to teaching children to read. However, the most zealous proponents of "whole language" are not as noteworthy for what they are against as what they are for. They absolutely proscribe "teaching skills in isolation," which in their minds rules out traditional, systematic approaches to phonics.

Third, and most important, the adoption recommendation before you is flawed -- not simply because of quirks this year -- but because of inherent shortcoming in the statewide adoption process. For all practical purposes, it is impossible for volunteers, frequently unprepared for the task, working under time pressure, to complete a thorough review of every program that is submitted. These programs are complicated and they are big. An entire basal reading program makes a stack of paper three or four feet high. Place all of the programs submitted end to end and you have 40 to 50 feet of paper.

Faced with an overwhelming task, people take shortcuts. They are overly influenced by attractive art work. They are easily swayed by anecdotes. They are prone to make ratings based on hearsay and "reputation."

The process of statewide adoption discourages innovation, limits diversity, and reduces local choice. It is subject to abuses, including fraud and bribery. It is vulnerable to ideological fashion. It is expensive and time consuming. Scholars who have studied the statewide adoption process concur that it is an unwise intrusion in the market place. Ideally, there would be no state adoption at all:

Districts and schools ought to have the freedom to choose from a full range of available materials.

Based on the foregoing, allow me to offer you two recommendations: First, this year, accept all of the reading programs submitted. Second, henceforth, abandon statewide textbook adoption."