School board members raised their voices and turned red in the face Monday night as they argued over whether to allow parents to critique the district’s philosophy of reading instruction.
Citizens for Academic Excellence, a group of concerned parents, asked to be placed on the agenda to make a presentation. The group formed last year to urge the district to get “back to the basics.”
“It’s an outrage and a disgrace that this board is attempting to obstruct this,” board Chairman Ken Burchell fumed when three board members voted to oust the group from the agenda.
Burchell and board member Jane Curtis wanted to hear the group’s report.
The group is opposed to “whole language,” a method of teaching that emphasizes reading comprehension and veers away from systematic instruction on the parts of language.
But at the start of the board meeting, school trustee Wanda Quinn made a motion to only allow three speakers five minutes each during the public-input portion of the meeting.
Quinn argued the group should not have a large block of time because their presentation was prepared without the administration’s input.
“Unbelievable, disgusting behavior,” Burchell declared.
Burchell called a recess to confer with the citizens group, which passed the public input sign-up sheet around the packed meeting room.
When their chance came, a number of concerned parents conceded their time to the group’s leaders.
Whole language has been a wholesale failure, the parents told the school board in the 40-minute presentation.
The critique of whole language, which the parents said was the dominant teaching strategy in the district, preceded a report from the administration that test scores are on the rise.
Although reading and language scores dropped districtwide in the Fourth grade, they improved in almost all other grades where comparisons were available to 1994 scores.
But parents at Monday’s meeting said more needs to be done to improve reading and writing skills.
Armed with a taped segment of 20/20 and reports sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers and the U.S. Department of Education, the parents made a case for phonics-based reading instruction.
The video hailed the direct teaching method - the practice of teaching by repetition and rote memorization through drills.
“Please consider our request for the implementation of direct instruction and systematic phonics in our district schools,” implored parent Monica Wilson, as a teacher in the crowd groaned and dropped her head in her hands.
Whole language supplanted a phonics-based program in Coeur d’Alene in the early ‘80s. Phonics emphasizes recognition of the parts of language by sounding them out.
Patti Perry, a teacher and member of the district’s language arts committee, used to be a big proponent of phonics, she said earlier Monday.
“But kids hated reading,” she said. “We were looking for something to balance it, and suddenly there was a shift to whole language.”
Teachers have found weaknesses with whole language, too, Perry said. For the last three years, she has been teaching teachers how to integrate phonics and other effective reading methods into the curriculum.