Textbook Committee Recommends City-wide Basal

By Rebecca Schwartz

​​The Milwaukee Public Schools Reading Textbook Evaluation committee recommended a “core basal” which would be used by all first grade through sixth grade teachers. The Committee rejected a proposal by some members of the group to establish a “whole language option” which would allow teachers to choose a whole language approach in lieu of the basal. By this option they would receive training in whole language techniques and collaboratively work to develop an integrated reading and language arts program.

After working six months on reviewing basal series from 13 companies, the committee selected Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (HBJ) for elementary schools and the Mc­ Dougal Littell literature based program for the middle schools. (‘The K-8 schools will be able to choose which program they want for 6th to 8th grade.)

Several aspects of the final recommendation distinguish this adoption from the previous one seven years ago. If the board approves the committee’s recommendation, individual kindergarten teachers will have the right to use either the materials from the core basal, a readiness component of another reading program, the Write to Read program, or a whole language emergent writing program. Additionally, the committee proposed that all elementary teachers have the option in the spring of each year to indicate whether they want to use workbooks or spend the equivalent funds to purchase books for their classroom libraries (e.g. trade books, big books).

Perhaps the most far reaching recommendation of the committee is that the testing used for evaluation be a newly designed “reading comprehension power test” that is part of the HBJ basal series, with the end of unit tests and end of book tests being optional and used for diagnostic purposes only. It was the hope of several members of the committee that using an assessment tool that stressed comprehension over isolated skills would encourage teachers to emphasize comprehension. 

The committee also recommended that “all elementary schools should give daily priority to independent reading (cg. DEAR, SSR, SQUIRT) and build classroom libraries to support that emphasis” and that “all elementary teachers of reading should daily read appropriate genre aloud to their students in order to motivate, model good reading strategies, share quality literature, and engender the love of reading.”

Minority Report Issued 

Three members of the textbook committee issued a minority report which was to be presented to the school board’s Community Relations and Instruction Committee at the time the full report is made. “The minority report is more of an addendum than an alternative report,” stated Fran Breest, one of the report’s authors and a member of the Adoption Committee. “It’s not that we oppose the main points of the committee report per se, but without the whole language option the committee’s recommendations are too restrictive for all but kindergarten teachers.” Breest, a learning disabilities teacher at 53rd Street School, explained, “We propose that teachers be given an option· to use an integrated reading and language arts approach in lieu of the core basal. Under our plan teachers would indicate if they wanted to use this approach and receive inservice training before school started next fall.” The minority report asks that the school board fund a summer curriculum writing committee consisting of six teachers experienced with whole language and whole book approach. The whole language committee would: 1) plan for the preschool inservice; 2) offer ideas, activities and information to help individuals develop their own grade level teaching plans, and 3) plan an ongoing support system and ongoing inservices to take place year long.

The committee would draw on resources that exist in our community, including area Schools of Education and organizations such as Teachers Applying Whole Language (TA WL), Wisconsin State Reading Association (WSRA), National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the Milwaukee Kindergarten Association, and the Ad Hoc Committee for Whole Language.

Some argue that granting such options in an urban setting is impossible because of high student mobility. But according to Bob Peterson, a fifth grade teacher at Vieau and co-author of the minority report, “If such a whole language program has both grade level objectives and assessment methods consistent with those used elsewhere in the system, student mobility will be no more of a problem than when students transfer between two classes that both use the core basal.”

“The bottom line,” according to Peter­son, “is will MPS recognize new reading research and participate in even a limited way in the whole language movement which is gaining momentum nationwide?” During the past few years low reading test scores and the functional illiteracy of many high school graduates have been a big concern to Milwaukee parents and community leaders. Some people place at least part of the blame for these problems on the way reading is being taught in the schools. Peterson believes that “by providing a whole language option to teachers, Milwaukee could start advancing in this key area of education.”

“We are not saying there is only one right way to teach reading,” stated Breest. “It isn’t an issue of right or wrong, better or worse. It is simply an issue of difference. A teacher teaches most effectively with materials she or he believes in.” Current MPS policy allows for teachers to individually submit plans for the teaching of reading that deviate from the basal program, but Breest says that’s insufficient. “How is one teacher supposed to develop an entire curriculum? What we arc calling for is relatively low cost support for teachers – a curriculum writing committee and inservicing for only those interested. I’m sure the whole system would benefit from the curricular ideas that would be developed.”

A survey of teachers of reading for grades K – 8 circulated by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found that 20% of the over 1,600 respondents said they would prefer a “whole language/whole book approach” over the core basal approach. For 1st through 8th grade teachers the figure was 13%.

“Most likely all 13% wouldn’t actually opt to use the whole language option,” said Mary Ann Padol, a primary teacher at Victory School and co-author of the minority report, “but what if 50 to 100 teachers participated in such an effort? We could network throughout the year, sup­ porting each other and sharing ideas. The possibilities are great.”

For a copy of the Evaluation Commit­tee’s recommendations please contact the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Room 253 at Central Office, Milwaukee Public Schools.

For a copy of the minority report please contact: Fran Breest at 53rd St. School, Mary Ann Padol at Victory School or Bob Peterson at Vieau School.

Rebecca Schwartz holds a Master’s De­gree in English and works closely with Rethinking Schools.