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Teachers Fight Scripted Curriculum

Susan Notes: Kids in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, an urban area encompassing some of the poorest parts of the San Francisco Bay area, have already lost so much. Forced to pare down its budget by $28 million over the last three years, the district has already eliminated all school sports programs, closed all its libraries and pink-slipped more than 200 employees.

Now they're losing novels too. They're buying an anthology recommended by the state department of education because the state will help pay for it. The state aint going to pay for Catcher in the Rye or "Death of a Salesman."

The good news is that teachers are standing in protest, reading these words aloud.

Note: Gloria Johnston's doctoral dissertation was a study of the work of public school superintendents.

Every morning for the last two weeks, someone has been outside El Cerrito High School reading from Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," the chilling account of a society where group-think has replaced individual thought and books are used as burnt offerings to benefit the social order.

The protest at the East Bay school may be one of the last opportunities for students to read a novel cover to cover there. Next fall, as part of a district change in English curriculum, they likely will use an anthology that offers poems, short stories and excerpts of classic novels -- but no complete works.

Teachers began the read-in after hearing about Dan Alderson, an English teacher at Sonoma Valley High School who started reading from the Bradbury novel and other works when he learned of a state-imposed restructuring of his district earlier this month.

Since then, Alderson has arrived at the school an hour before classes and reads from the list of novels that are now the backbone of the school's English program.

"We read 'Of Mice and Men,' 'The Merchant of Venice,' 'To Kill a Mockingbird' -- all of them works that are central to what we believe is a liberal arts education" he said.

In the West Contra Costa district, officials decided to use the Prentice- Hall anthology because it was already being used in middle schools, said Superintendent Gloria Johnston. And because it is recommended by the state board of education, school districts can receive state funding to help purchase it.

English teachers will have discretion to select two novels each year from a group of suggested works, Johnston said. And some of the time devoted to those stuffy old novels will be replaced with instruction -- don't fall over -- in how to read technical manuals.

Johnston said the trend has been encouraged by employers looking for qualified workers, but I wonder if any of those perspective employers would want an employee who could engage in abstract thought and form ideas based on a deeper intellectual understanding.

In nitty-gritty terms, Johnston pointed to El Cerrito High's declining state test scores. Nearly three-quarters of students there who took the test failed it last year. Some of the other six high schools in the district, including Richmond and DeAnza high schools, are closing the gap in test scores.

"You can't argue with the facts," Johnston said.

The district views the controversy and protest at El Cerrito High School as the work of a few veteran teachers who have rejected the new curriculum without ever attending teacher workshops sponsored by the district.

Johnston's comments were a direct reference to English teachers Joan Cone and Paula Gocker, who between them have taught at the high school for nearly 60 years.

"There are some teachers at this school who value teaching a wide range of genres with rich writing and a wide selection of books," Cone said. "We objected because the district said they would adopt this curriculum and force teachers to teach this 80 to 100 percent of the time," she added.

"I've been a teacher for 40 years, and this is my last year, and what's happening in our district, the general disrespecting of teachers and their curriculum, saddens me," Cone said.

Its harshest critics believe the scripted curriculum will soon replace classic novels and eventually kill the intellectual discussions that spring from them.

The cookie-cutter approach to English may also discourage qualified teachers who want to put their education to work from coming to the East Bay district, said Jabari Mahiri, a UC Berkeley education professor.

Bringing a scripted curriculum to public schools "inherently implies that teachers are not professional enough to design instruction that will prepare students for exit exams and college," said Mahiri.

Mahiri, who teaches a graduate course in education, said such an arrangement would surely discourage his students from seeking employment in such a district.

"These are some of the most gifted teachers in the system, and they want to work in an urban school setting, but two years of a graduate program, teaching methods and curriculum development would be pointless in a scripted classroom," he said.

Indeed, if the curriculum is implemented next fall as planned, Gocker will probably be joining Cone in leaving the school.

Gocker questions the district's claim that English students will be given the time and breadth to read even two novels a year when the district has laid down a mandate that the anthology textbook must be used as the core text.

"I'm very worried that there will be a failure of will, and teachers are going to be more concerned with correct test answers than students developing their own ideas and thoughts," Gocker said. "This is a lot bigger than the textbook issue."

Graduating senior David Ball said the novels he read in Cone's classes --

"Death of a Salesman," "Fahrenheit 451" and "Catcher in the Rye" -- forced him to think, analyze and read more.

"I read 'Catcher in the Rye' four times, but I really didn't understand it until we read and analyzed it in my junior year," he said.

"A chapter or excerpt isn't going to change your life, but a book just might."

Chip Johnson's column appears on Monday and Friday. E-mail him at chjohnson@sfchronicle.com.

— Chip Johnson
San Francisco Chronicle


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