More than two dozen Fairfax County elementary schools have decided against using either of two new reading-text series that have strong phonics components, upsetting some School Board members who say they'll move next week to require all schools to use at least one of them.
The board adopted four new series of elementary reading books in December--including the two that rely heavily on phonics--in the first change in reading texts in 12 years. Board members said the selections illustrated the county's commitment to strong phonics instruction and an end to the "reading wars."
The county's 132 elementary schools each were allowed to choose any two of the four series, and many board members assumed that schools would choose at least one of the phonics-based books.
But a new survey by the district shows that 26 schools didn't do that, including several that have been targeted as low-performing and considered most likely to benefit from a strong phonics program.
"When we approved these textbooks, I heard it said that the reading wars were over," said board member Christian N. Braunlich (Lee). "Well, these schools have just ended the cease-fire.
"They ignored the clear direction the board was going in, they ignored the direction the superintendent was giving and, most importantly, they ignored the research."
For years, the debate about reading approaches has been one of the most intense and politicized in public education, pitting those who favor phonics--in which children learn to read by sounding out the letters in a word--against those who favored the so-called "whole language" approach. Whole language, which became popular in the 1980s, emphasizes exposing children to literature and getting them to recognize words from the context of a story or the accompanying illustrations.
Research has shown that a blended approach, combining elements of both methods, often works best. But researchers also have found that some children learn effectively only through phonics. Many school districts, conceding that they had gone too far in the direction of whole language, have been reemphasizing phonics.
Board Chairman Robert E. Frye Sr. (At Large) said he would introduce a motion at Thursday's board meeting that would require every school to have at least one phonics-based series for each grade from kindergarten through second to show the board is "serious about providing phonics instruction."
Yesterday, principals stood by their decision to reject both heavily phonics-based textbook lines.
"We selected the series we selected based on the needs of our students," said Nat Emery, principal at Crossfield Elementary. "Our students are, for the most part, good readers. We thought the series we selected presented better options--had a broader scope--in being able to meet the needs of our young readers."
Privately, some teachers and administrators said they resented the board's second-guessing. They said they would order the additional books, if directed, but added that simply having them in the building was no guarantee that they would be used.
"Surely, I respect what the schools have done in making their choices," responded Frye, a Democrat, "but we, as a board, have an overriding responsibility to ensure that educational opportunities are consistent among schools."
Board members said they were particularly upset that several Project Excel schools rejected the two phonics-based series. Those schools have large numbers of low-performing students. Beginning this fall, the schools will be required to make curriculum changes and will be given extra resources in an attempt to boost student achievement. The schools will be required to meet academic goals or face having their staffs replaced.
"I think it's clear in the Project Excel schools especially that phonics and phonemic awareness are critical to helping their students achieve," said board Vice Chairman Mark H. Emery (At Large), a Democrat. "I'm disappointed."
Frye's plan to require schools to take one phonics-based series appears to have bipartisan support on the board. Braunlich, one of four Republican members, said he backs it in theory, and Republican Mychele B. Brickner (At Large) also expressed tentative support for it.