Washington public schools are using scripts from some of television's top-rated shows to teach reading this year to thousands of students from fourth grade to the end of senior high.
This week about 15,000 students in school. 99 schools received scripts for Thursday's episode of the "The Waltons" on CBS. Many of them took tests on the activities of granpa, Corabeth, Olivia and other characters in the program.
Two week ago the students' assignment was "The Six Million Dollar Man," a science fiction show on ABC.
Next week the schools plan to distribute scripts for the Dec. 5 broadcast of "Little House on the Prairie" on NBC.
The scripts, accompanied by an elaborate teachers guide with dozens of suggested classroom activities, are provided free by Capital Cities Communications, Inc., as part of an experiment to see if teaching about popular television shows can lead to reading gains.
They carry a strong endorsement from D.C. school Supt. Vincent Reed who sees them as a way to "capitalize on kids" interest in television and turn it into a motivation to read.
However, the television reading program has drawn a sharp complaints from parents at two schools in northwest Washington - Eaton and Hearst and strong criticism from D.C. School Board member Betty Ann Kane.
"I spend all my time trying to get my kids not to watch television," Kane said, "and I don't think the schools should encourage it . . . It would be better if we encouraged them to read books.
"In some of these scripts," she continued "the grammer is poor. The sentenced are unfinished. I wouldn't mind it if we encouraged students to watch public television - quality programs - but some of these shows are at a very low level of taste. I don't see how we can use them in a school system committed to excellence."
In an interview, Reed said he respects the opinions of Kane and other parents who don't want their children to watch popular television shows.
"No kids are to be penalized if parents don't want them to watch these shows," the superintendent said. "Watching them is voluntary, like sex education.
But Reed added: Other parents have opinions, too, and in a lot of homes watching television is part of the daily routine of their lives . . . I'm hopeful the kids will be motivated by this to improve their reading. You know, I don't care what they read as long as they read something - no pornography. But if what you consider good taste doesn't motivated kids, then I think we've got to examine it again."
D.C. School Board President Therman Evans said he had "mixed feelings" about having school children read popular television scripts.
"Too many of our young children read popular televur old people for that matter, are addicted to television anyway," Evans said. "But I think we have to try to improve reading. Not everyone will agree with every means, but if this gets students motivated, I can't knock it."
The television script program is scheduled to continue until early April with a total of 10 prime-time shows divided among three major networks.
Capital Cities Communications, which is distributing the scripts, owns television stations in six cities, including Philadelphia and Houston, that are affiliated with different networks. It also owns several magazine and newspapers, including Women's Wear Daily.
Neil Lewis, the D.C. school system's director of reading, said school officials don't know which particular scripts are going to be used until they are received from Capital Cities, printed up as booklets. But she said school administrators have approved a list of 30 shows from which they may be selected.
Among the programs on the list are "Bionic Woman," "Welcome Back Kotter," "Sanford and Son," "Wonder Woman," and "Chico and the Man," as well as "The Bob Newart Show," "Wonderful World of Disney," and "Rhoda."
Lewis said in most classes students read the scripts for several days before the programs, learn the meaning of difficult words from their teachers, and then are expected to read along from their scripts while they watch the programs.
After the shows, she said students discuss plots, vocabulary and concepts in class and take tests about them.
"These are prime-time, regularly scheduled shows," Lewis said, "the ones that students are going to look at anyway. We can't think of anything better to teach reading . . . This is not to the exclusion of anything else but now this part of our curriculum, too."
Whether teachers and schools want to use scripts is voluntary, Lewis said, but she said all 15,000 copies available were snapped up quickly.
She said almost all the reactions she has heard from students and teachers has been enthusiastic.
Patricia Greer, principal of Hearst School, said she decided to drop the progam there because of criticism from parents, similiar to Kane's but she said she was continuing to use it at Eaton School, a few blocks away in Cleveland Park, where she also is principal.
Students in a seventh grade English class at Eaton talked about "The Waltons" enthusiastically on Friday and clamored for a chance to take different parts as the class read sections of it aloud.
At Eastern High School, 17th and East Capitol Streets, teachers said they like having the television scripts, but complained the booklets hadn't arrived long enough before the shows to use them fully.
"It's difficult to find material for our students to use," said English teacher Catherine Thomas. "It's difficult to use a 10th textbook because many of the students are below grade level."
Besides distributing the television scripts in Washington's schools, Capital Cities Communications is giving them out free to schools in New York City, Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia suburbs - a total of about 65,000 scripts per show.
Michael McAndrew, a former teacher who now is director of educative services for the Philadelphia based firm, said this is the first time that script of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] popular TV shows have been distrubuted in schools, although video cassettes and old shows, accompanied by scripts, have been used in a number of school systems.
The venture is costing the company $250,000, including $75,000 for an evaluation by professors at Pennsylvania State University. The networks are supplying the scripts free.
McAndrew said the company hopes to proved that TV script can raise reading achievement, improve attendance, reduce discipline problems, and create more positive attitudes toward reading.
"I don't know what we'll do next," he said. "Maybe something along this line will continue. Maybe well produce educational TV shows or programmed instruction . . . Too many children are coming out of schools today as nonreaders. We have to reach out to them, and I think we can do that through TV."