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Education Reporter

Texas School Board Wins
Reading Textbook Battle

Publishers include 80% 'decodable' text
AUSTIN, TX - The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) has succeeded in producing a national first for the state - all 1st grade reading programs placed on its "conforming list" for local adoption this year exceed the state-mandated 80% decodability, that is, at least 80% of the text uses letters and sounds that have already been taught.

Texas law now requires that every 1st grade teacher in every school district be trained in phonics instruction, both decodability and literature. State Board Member and Vice Chairman Geraldine Miller, herself a trained reading specialist who works with dyslexic students, will personally supervise the Teacher Training Academies to be held this summer at the University of Texas to ensure that the program is not watered down.

In 1996, 40 reading experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and other Massachusetts universities jointly signed a letter blaming the whole language reading program for America's "serious decline in reading achievement." They argued that a mastery of phonics is fundamental to reading. The Texas SBOE took up the experts' challenge to return phonics-based reading programs to all K-3 classrooms.

"Due to the hard work and diligence of our elected school board, Texas was first to actually prescribe a definite percentage of decodable text," says former educator-turned-researcher Marilyn Prokup. "The board had plenty of support from pro-family groups, with Texas Eagle Forum at the forefront, and from teachers who were demanding decodability."

Prokup notes that while the SBOE in its Nov. 5 meeting required 80% decodable selections in order to place books on the "conforming" (to standards) list for 1st grade readers, the good news is that all five "conforming" programs that have been approved for Texas schools this year will exceed that percentage. The Open Court (SRA/McGraw Hill 2000) textbooks scheduled to come off the press in June 2000 will contain more than 95% decodable selections.

Rocky Road for Textbooks 
The road to 80% decodable texts was rocky for the SBOE and for textbook publishers. According to Neal Frey of the Mel Gablers' Educational Research Analysts in Longview, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) initially told major publishers that the rules required only 51% decodability. At its meeting last November, the SBOE disavowed that percentage and ordered publishers to raise to 80% the decodability level of their 1st grade readers for adoption in 2000.

"Demanding 80% decodability was gutsy as well as right," Frey says. "The heroic conservative members of the board, led by Geraldine Miller, were unanimous in backing the revisions."

The SBOE publicly broke ranks with the TEA, rejecting the claim that some publishers might not submit textbooks the next time around if TEA's requirements were overruled so late in the adoption process. "The board ignored the liberals' pretense that it lacked authority to set standards and defied bogus hints of a publishers' lawsuit," Frey states.

Early in the book-writing phase, publishers asked TEA what the percentage of decodable text should be for the 1st grade readers. "By law, the TEA should have consulted with the board," Frey explains. "Instead, the agency interpreted the standards and gave publishers the 51% figure on its own authority. The SBOE only learned of this shortly before members were to vote to approve the new programs."

While the issue of decodable text received all the media attention, textbook analysts at the Gablers say that comprehensiveness, intensiveness, and consistency of phonics instruction are also important. They ranked a total of eight 1st grade readers, including the five "conforming programs" that have been approved for adoption in Texas. (See Grade 1 Reading Programs.)

Effects of Texas Initiative 
Because Texas has the second-largest school system in the country with a $90 million budget for K-3 English reading books, publishers were persuaded to meet its demand for the shift in decodability. "It's important that publishers who significantly improved their textbooks at the last minute find a market for them in order to keep the phonics instruction momentum going," Marilyn Prokup points out.

She adds: "Texas is very fortunate to have an elected state school board that does not simply rubberstamp whatever the 'educrats' dictate. As a result of the board's action, smaller school systems across the country now have the opportunity to avail themselves of good phonics-based reading instruction materials."

Texas is not the only state to mandate phonics. "California has been doing exceptional work with pilot programs funded by the Packard Foundation using the Open Court program," Mrs. Prokup explains. "Test scores rose dramatically when this program was implemented."

California's 2002 Language Arts Adoption law calls for 75% decodable texts, and phonics proponents say that the state should continue its very positive trend towards true systematic phonics instruction.

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