Cal State

1999 Conference on Standards-Based K-12 Education

California State University Northridge

Transcript of Richard Colvin
biography of speaker


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Return to transcript of Carol Jago

Speaker: Just like to say that I thought everyone was pleased that the State did not adopt the (Inaudible). But you are saying that did not cause wonderful things to happen. Fortunately to have such a great panel. Now Richard Colvin. You all know that he is the premier education writer for the LA Times. But I am told -- I travel a lot all over the country and need to share, when people say to me, you know you have the best education writer in the country (Applause) -- I take that as a sort of compliment and an insult -- as if I didn't know it? Of course I know it (Laughter).

Mr. Colvin: Hey, just ruin my reputation. Thank you very much, Marion , and thank you to Dr. Klein to ask me to appear here. It is unusual for a reporter to appear on this side of a panel. I'm supposed to listen and write and translate what people say to the public. But I find myself in this role increasingly. I think it is because people come to gatherings like this and talk about policies, standards and all of these things that have been done. And it is very hard to get a sense of what's happening out there in the classroom -- what is really out there on the land. I'm fortunate that as a reporter and as a parent of a kindergartner and third grader in public schools, I get an opportunity to be in schools all the time and see what this discussion at this level looks like at the ground level.

I've got to say that I think the news is really remarkably good. A few years ago, I was on a similar panel in Chicago -- at the American Educational Research Association, and I think my comments there about where we were at were pretty negative. And I think, looking back, the reason was impatience. I had the attitude that, okay, we had already done the hard work. We had standards, we had a framework. We had a reading panel that had made its decree about what reading instruction looked like. Now get to it. What's all this waiting around business? Let's see some results.

And, you know, I was guilty of that in my writing too. I wrote stories that said, hey, 6 months ago, the state said said reading instruction had changed in California. Come on, let's go. Let's see it. I wrote the somewhat accommodating remark, and appropriately so, that turning, you know, an educational system as large and as complex as California around is like turning around an ocean liner. I think even that is an analogy, maybe, that's too optimistic. But the point is, that's the nature of the system. And we need to think back to what was said this morning by Janet -- stick to this for a long time and be real clear about the fact that we are making progress.

Four or almost five years ago when I started writing about this stuff, before I met Marion or many of the people in this room, it was impossible to go around -- virtually impossible to go around this State and to find anybody who was willing to question the orthodoxy of absolute extreme whole language, essentially that kids learned to read the same way they learned how to speak. In '92, we often speak of the scores of '94 as being influential of waking people up to the issue of reading instruction. But in fact, the NAEP scores of 1992, the first year that reading scores were compared by state, showed California almost in the same position as it was a few years later. California was at the very bottom in '92, and then again at the very bottom in 1994. Instead of being tied with Mississippi and ahead of Louisiana, if I remember, we were no longer tied with Mississippi, because Mississippi had made great gains. We were below Louisiana because we were the only State in the Nation that had gone down in the two years. Suddenly people began to worry that maybe there was something going on.

You know, just to reflect again on that period... At that time the response was that what we needed was essentially more training for teachers, which, you know, is true at all times. Any of us get better with reflecting on what we do. We needed more money. Our class sizes were huge. We needed more books. We didn't have enough books in many schools. But you know, I think we ought to think about what's happened in the last few years. It's not only that back then we didn't have standards or a framework aligned with those standards. We didn't have the huge amount of money going into books that we have now. We had huge class sizes.

We have changed in this state -- you know, it's an enormous shift, if you think about it, over the last few years. And again, that only argues for the fact that we need to continue to work on what we're working on.

So I say the news is good. You know, we now know that students have to read fluently in order to understand. They have to read well in order to enjoy literature. And furthermore, I think we understand in this state that students have to be taught to read. That was not true five years ago -- that was not true five years ago. We still have the debate about how exactly, precisely that instruction ought to occur, but I think we all know now, students must be taught to read.

I just have to share a real quick story. I had an opportunity to go to New Zealand to look at the reading instruction programs there. And I was standing in the parking lot of a school of education that is -- that was the school of education in Auckland where Reading Recovery started. And I was speaking to a person on the faculty there. She said, oh, you are from California, that's great. The New Zealanders are very sweet, hospitable people. She said, "It's great you came to see us. What are you doing?" I said, "Well, I'm going to write an article about reading instruction in New Zealand." And she turned to me and smiled in a way that those of us who were students remember, only teachers could smile at you that way -- as if, "my dearest child..." (Laughter)

"Instruction" -- talking with a New Zealand accent -- "instruction, why, that's so medieval!" And I was so taken aback. And later I realized -- I'm very slow on the up take on these things, very slow -- I realized I should have said, "Gee, I thought instruction was quite renaissance." (Laughter).

Unfortunately, I didn't think of that (Laughter). But we've changed. I think we believe now that, just for the types of things Carol was talking about, we have to teach kids. It won't just soak up through the skin.

Now, it's also true what Janet said about reform passing so quickly that nothing has been changed. And I think in many schools, you know, whatever has happened here has passed through schools as sort of a cool and gentle wind that barely disturbed the papers on the desk. Kind of floating there, kind of flowing past but not making any difference. I was up in Palo Alto last week and had occasion to have lunch with a member of the Board of Trustees in Palo Alto. She showed me a memo or newsletter from her daughter's class. And it had a lot of information about what was going on in class, but had a section on reading instruction -- "When you are helping your child learn to read at home and they come to a word that they don't know, the first thing to do is go to the end of the sentence and see if they can guess what that word was. Then they should look at the picture and see if that works out. They should look at the first letter and make their mouths ready to say the rest of the word." You know, I don't understand that. If you look at a word and get your mouth ready (Laughter), how does that help you continue with the rest of the word? I don't get that. I'm sorry. I need some help there, some remediation, I think.

Remember this was a two columns on each page, single spaced a lot of type, three pages long. The only part of that entire thing that went home that was capitalized were these words that came right after all these others -- this other advice -- again, this is the biggest emphasis, the only part that was capitalized -- "do not tell your children to sound out words!" -- this was in Palo Alto.

I suppose those kids are going to learn to read anyway. That's fine. And I'm sure they don't need any instruction. That's fine. But you know what, my kid needs to be taught. My kid's in kindergarten and he needs to be taught. And I've read to him since he was an infant because he has an older sister, and every night we read to them. There's books stacked up everywhere. I have to tell you, one of the things about being a reading -- reporter -- sometimes I think that's what I am -- an education reporter is that publishers are my best friends. And that's great for my kids because they have tons of books. But the point is that, you know, my kid, my kindergartner needs to be taught. My daughter didn't need to be taught, but my kindergartner does. And I would rather have both of them taught to read rather than neither of them taught because one of them might not need to be taught. Again, instruction is not medieval. So as a parent, I react rather strongly to that advice.

I want to tell you about another school I visited recently and then on to the good news. I was at a school not too long ago in Berkeley. And the Principal there told me that, you know, the good news is that she said all of our teachers have been trained in our program consistent with the A to H requirements. Now, that is incredible. The A to H requirements are the evidence of a professional development program that have to be in there in order to get funding from the State under one of the bills that Marion was instrumental in getting through the legislature. The fact that a principal would say to me and expect me to understand and know what she meant, a shorthand for what should be in a professional development program, is pretty remarkable. Because those A to Hrequirements -- they have to have phonemic awareness, importance of phonics, instruction in comprehension strategies. In other words, she knew what a good reading program must consist of because of the hard work of Marion and the Legislature and the State Board of Education as a whole and the government.

So some of it is getting out there. But at the same time, it's not always a clear message. The same Principal could say to me. "We have a literature based curriculum" -- great, fine, that's the way it ought to be, every curriculum in every school ought to be literature based. But she could -- as long as there's instruction so the kids can use that literature, of course. But she could also say to me, "You know, I have this problem because when we get to the 4th grade, everything that we do in class has to be read to the students, because if I ask them to read it on their own, they will not understand it, they will not be able to talk about it. They will not discuss it. And I want them to operate up here with the ideas of the things that they are reading, with the content, with the knowledge so that we can have the discussion. And when I want that to occur, I have to read that to them."

To me, there's a connection that's missing. You know the elements of professional development. You know they want kids to be able to discuss things at a very high level. And yet the instructional strategies that they were using were not producing their results, which in my mind, being rather simple minded about this stuff, I would think you have to think about whether you are doing the right things in order to have -- in order to achieve this.

Now, I'd say the news is good because I've recently had the opportunity to write an article about the California Reading and Literature Projects results program, which is going to form the basis for the Governor's summer reading institute -- 600 schools, 6,000 teachers are going to be given training and support during the school year.

And it is a remarkable thing to go to a school that is using this kind of approach, that focused on results. Janet spoke this morning about the importance of focusing on results. There are schools all around the State, a thousand of them, that are now focusing on results. There's going to be 600 more after this summer, and if we keep continuing it, I think there will be many more. The point is, you look at what kids can do -- you decide what you want kids to do based on the Standards. Then you keep track of whether they are doing it or not. And you train and teach them -- training really truly is a medieval word, I'm sorry to use that word (Laughter). You teach them so that they can achieve what you want them to achieve.

What do we all want kids to achieve? We want them to first and foremost be able to read the newspaper and understand it (Laughter). You know, that sounds like a joke, but it's not. I mean, if you could read the newspaper, you are engaged in it and are understanding it and can talk about it at the water cooler or when you are punching a time clock, you are going to be reading other things. And you know, we get into this silly, silly debate about phonics and so on. I don't care how kids are taught, as long as they are taught. And we know from research there are things that work better than other things. So let's do those things.

Anyway, my overall feeling is that things are really going quite well. But we do need to stick with it. We do need to use these Standards in a positive way. We, you know, I think we all should realize though that -- you know, we look at our realities through a very narrow window. And we might think, you know, things are -- oh, my, you know, the test scores next month are going to be terrible, and wring our hands and think that we're a few steps from Hell's gate. But we need to recognize that -- I tell this to Marion all the time because she wrings her hands -- we have made an enormous amount of progress in this state, and we need to feel good about it and keep working on it. Thank you. (Applause)

Question and answer session
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Contact the organizers

Postal and telephone information:

1999 Conference on Standards-Based K12 Education

College of Science and Mathematics

California State University Northridge

18111 Nordhoff St.

Northridge CA 91330-8235

Telephone: (Dr. Klein: 818-677-7792)

FAX: 818-677-3634 (Attn: David Klein)