Fighting over textbooks

Teachers and administrators vie for control over school curriculum

Teacher Janice Auld doesn’t like the Open Court reading program that is favored by administrators.

Teacher Janice Auld doesn’t like the Open Court reading program that is favored by administrators.

Photo by Larry Dalton

There was a time when teachers played a central role in the selection of curriculum and instructional materials. But in recent years, amid calls to improve the quality of education, school administrators have taken the lead in selecting curriculum for California’s students.

The struggle for control over how kids learn recently played itself out on the state political stage with the defeat of a controversial bill that would have given teachers more curriculum-setting power. And it has played out in districts such as the North Sacramento School District, where Janice Auld is a kindergarten teacher at Harmon Johnson Elementary and the president of the North Sacramento Education Association.

For more than 20 years, Auld has watched curriculum programs come and go. Some have worked well and others haven’t. But when her district adopted the reading and language arts program Open Court—and excluded teachers from the curriculum selection process—the instructors on the curriculum selection committee felt the choice was a mistake.

Not only did they think it was not in the best interest of the children, but the process showed a blatant disregard for their professional expertise, considering Open Court happened to be at the bottom of their list.

“We were ready to take our findings back to the district, and Open Court was not even one we wanted to consider. It lacked color, it lacked interest, it lacked vocabulary development—all of the things we teachers like to see in a book for a kid to learn from,” said Auld.

But instead of administrators listening to the committee’s findings, Auld said the committee was told that the district had decided to go with Open Court. This left teachers like Auld feeling betrayed and devalued, as if their knowledge and expertise meant nothing.

John Brewer, assistant superintendent of the North Sacramento School District, confirmed that the teachers’ recommendations were not taken into account when the district selected the Open Court reading program. However, Brewer explains that the administrators were under time constraints to select a program; and by selecting Open Court, the district would be provided with $1.5 million in funding for materials and reading coaches, which he says their underprivileged district sorely needed.

Auld’s concerns are shared by many teachers throughout the state, including within the district to the south, where several teachers in Sacramento City Unified School District raised similar concerns with Open Court, although all feared speaking on-the-record.

When asked to comment on why a district might ignore teacher input, Superintendent Jim Sweeney of the Sacramento City Unified School District said teacher input is usually factored into decisions, even if it’s not the final word. Sweeney is also a strong supporter of Open Court.

“In most cases we don’t do things that don’t require teachers to really believe in them. So if they’re strongly opposed to something that’s important in the teaching and learning process, very seldom will that get done,” said Sweeney.

He said in his district, “It was simply a matter of making a textbook adoption decision. We get money to buy a textbook so we buy something that’s on the state list. So you try to figure out what one you’re going to buy. It’s really that simple.”

What occurred in North Sacramento has been happening more and more throughout the state, prompting the California Teachers Association (CTA) to step in and sponsor Assembly Bill 2160 to stop the trend. That effort failed two weeks ago when the measure was defeated.

Authored by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, AB 2160 would have allowed teachers to negotiate procedures for the selection of curriculum, textbooks, lesson plans and more. Despite amendments to the bill to calm the fears of administrators, who felt that it would have given teacher unions too much bargaining power, the bill was derailed before it ever really had a chance. CTA leaders have plans to revive the bill again.

Sweeney, who was a strong opponent of the bill, hails its defeat as a victory. “They did the right thing. It had the potential to be very damaging and destructive to what we’re trying to do,” said Sweeney. “This was not about teachers, it was about unions. And in my judgment, it was more about power and control, and in many cases people would be doing things that really didn’t represent what teachers want. It could easily have been used as leverage in collective bargaining.”

Auld, who holds a Master of Arts degree in English Language Development, says AB 2160 isn’t about unions, it’s about teachers being able to choose materials that are best for the students.

She has used Open Court for four years. Published by SRA/McGraw-Hill, the program’s authors say it is a systematic approach to balancing phonics and literature, by teaching a variety of skills and strategies including word knowledge, comprehension, phonics, inquiry, writing and language arts. But Auld says it does not always meet the needs of the students.

Sweeney believes that by and large, teachers in his district like the program. And teachers’ opinions vary from district to district. All of them seem to agree that the program is rigorous and time-consuming. Still others say that some of the content of the reading anthologies is too violent or graphic, particularly for students who come from homes where violence is a regular occurrence.

Sharon Van Vleck, director of Elementary Curriculum for Language Arts in SCUSD, explains that the literary selections in the anthologies and artwork are state approved and are considered good examples of children’s literature. In fact, though she acknowledges that there is some graphic material in the texts, she says with more than 1,200 teachers using the program, in five years she has only received one complaint about the content of the anthologies.

“In any text or piece of children’s literature, you can find an example of somewhat violent descriptions. This is probably mild compared to what most kids are exposed to on an hourly basis on television, in their homes, movies and magazines,” says Van Vleck. “I don’t think this program in the big context is portraying violence or promoting violence in any way. Most of the units in there are the actual opposite. They cover issues on friendship and getting along and sticking to values that we as a country hold universal.”

Van Vleck says some offending passages have been omitted from the 2002 edition of Open Court, and other offending artwork and text may have been removed as well.

Other concerns about the program include the lack of creative freedom teachers have to develop their own material to teach reading. Auld prefers to use more hands-on activities with the kindergartners, something she says Open Court does not allow.

“Teachers are told what to do, what to say, and when to say it, with students responding in rote fashion,” says Auld. Her concern is that they may be repeating words but don’t truly understand what they are saying and the context behind what they are reading.

“In North Sacramento, and in a lot of the Sacramento City schools, and some of Elk Grove schools, we have really high immigrant populations and a lot of bilingual students and non-English-speaking students,” says Auld. “We’re doing a disservice to those kids with this program. They’re learning how to say the sounds but they don’t know what the words mean. There are some real gaps in the program because of that.”

Auld’s concerns are not universal. There are many new teachers who enjoy using Open Court and have been successful with it. Jim Taylor is a third grade teacher at Elitha Donner Elementary in the Elk Grove Unified School District. A teacher for 10 years, this is his first year teaching Open Court, and he is very impressed by the program.

“Previous curricula that I’ve used were not nearly as comprehensive in terms of the support it gave me as a teacher,” says Taylor. “It’s helped my teaching be more powerful, and it’s helped me to have pieces that fit together rather than having to collect them from different places, so it’s really helped me to connect all of my language arts lessons together.”

Cindy McDermott also teaches third grade at Elitha Donner and has had great success with the program, despite the challenges she encountered her first year of using it. “For me, I think it’s worked extremely well, because the kids come in with a foundation that in third grade I can really work with,” says McDermott.

But McDermott believes working in a supportive district like Elk Grove has made all the difference in student outcomes. “In Elk Grove we have a school board that listens to its teachers and weighs the teachers’ input, especially on curriculum choices. I have friends who are teachers throughout the state of California who don’t always feel that their school board is listening to them. Thankfully that has not been the experience here.”

While Sweeney says test scores bear out that students under Open Court are learning to read at higher levels, and McDermott and others feel Open Court helps to create some sort of consistency in reading fluency, Auld is still fearful for the future. In the long run, students are the ones who will be affected. Auld says higher test scores drive districts and bring them more money, but tests aren’t the only measure of student success. In fact, she says a student can pass a reading fluency test by reading the words in a sentence, but not comprehend anything because they don’t know what the words really mean.

“If you’re looking at test scores on standardized tests, the higher the test score, the worse the teaching because it means that they have narrowed their focus. And only the things that they know will be on the test will be taught,” says Auld. “So, you’re going to have an entire generation of students who will not be getting into college or doing very poorly on college entrance tests because they’re not going to be taught any of the higher order thinking skills.”