The Prince William County School Board adopted a required reading list for all students last night that will take effect by fall 2000.
The action, on a 6 to 1 vote, with one member absent, followed 45 minutes of discussion of the benefits and consequences. The list specifies books, poems, plays and essays that must be taught to all students from kindergarten through the senior year of high school. Created over several months by a committee of teachers, the list is unique among Washington area school districts.
The book list has been criticized by some high school teachers, who say it omits some notable authors, takes away teacher freedom and adds more work for overburdened instructors. In response to those concerns, the list was taken off the agenda of a board meeting in May and reworked to add several more choices in high school grades.
Tim Horn, who teaches English at Woodbridge High School and opposes the reading list, was the only person to speak on the issue during a public hearing at last night's final board meeting of the school year.
"Because they believe their voices were not being heard, [other teachers] were reluctant to come tonight," Horn said.
Superintendent Edward L. Kelly said the county needs a list to make sure teachers are consistently meeting all of their curriculum objectives. Teachers are always free to teach more readings if they wish, he said.
"There's always going to be disagreement over whether one book is better than another," Kelly said. "The fact you have differences is the reason we have to come to some kind of agreement. I think it's an accountability issue."
The dissenting vote was cast by Charles J. Colgan III (Gainesville); board member John Harper Jr. (Neabsco) was absent.
Several board members said they hope that the list will be reviewed periodically and that teachers will be allowed to make substitutions if they can prove that a preferred work met the same criteria as other books on the list. Kelly assured them the list will be reviewed periodically, along with the entire language arts curriculum.
Colgan suggested that the board make the list a suggestion instead of a requirement. "I'm very pleased teachers put this together, but it's also been teachers calling me saying not to support it," he said.
Kelly said that making the list suggested instead of required would be backing out of a decision.
After the meeting, Horn said he was disappointed but not surprised. He said one of his colleagues at Woodbridge High recently completed a doctoral dissertation on Ernest Hemingway, whose work is not on the required list.
"What if, because of the list, he doesn't get to teach Hemingway? What have the students lost?" Horn said.
He added: "The ironic thing is, I teach 90 percent of what's on the ninth-grade English list. I didn't need them to tell me to teach it.
"But I'll tell you what, now that it's passed, I'll support it 100 percent."