Teachers battle for book choice

In California, educators spearhead a drive for more curriculum control.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Sitting in front of her class of kindergartners, Harriet Hutchinson is the picture of patience. To teach her children how to count to five, she dons a hand puppet and sings. To keep them in line, she turns only to a stern tone – never raised – suggesting she is not to be trifled with.

But outside her cluttered classroom, Ms. Hutchinson speaks with exasperation. For 35 years, she's taught in this Oakland school district, yet rarely has she felt so ignored.

From statewide tests to the adoption of highly scripted curriculums, recent reforms have dramatically reshaped the world of education. But too often, Hutchinson and colleagues say, these changes have been implemented with little or no input from teachers. The result is the beginning of a teacher backlash, centered on the question of who should choose the materials and methods to educate America's children.

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Two bills under consideration in Maryland and California seek to expand teachers'

rights in collective bargaining, allowing them to discuss issues such as curriculum and textbook choice, in a forum now used only to negotiate working conditions.

It's an unprecedented step that, to some, seems little more than a union power grab, fraught with the danger that academic decisions could be held hostage to a contentious process. To others, it is a way of making sure those closest to the children have a voice in the education revolution.

Both sides agree that it's a sign of growing teacher frustration, and could well be copied in other states.

"If successful ..., it could easily spread, and probably will," says Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

A matter of reception

Its success will depend largely on how it's perceived by parents and the broader public. Much of the current momentum for reform has come at the expense of teachers and their unions, cast as offering the same old solution – the call for money – while the crisis of failing schools deepened.

So, as Americans embraced new ideas, teachers' prerogatives shrank. Statewide tests demanded that they teach certain material. Curriculum reforms mandated that they teach from specific books, according to specific methods. Now, these new bargaining bills seek to reclaim some of that ground – not as opponents, but, rather, as partners of reform.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Unions always want to have as much open to bargaining as possible. But the approach is novel, and it could resonate. "One way to advance members' interests without getting bad publicity is to find new ways to increase teachers' rights," says Frederick Hess, an education expert at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "As more non-traditional ideas are put out there, there will be a lot of stuff in play that wasn't before."

Solutions and realities

For her part, kindergarten teacher Hutchinson supports the effort. Scurrying about her room, filling watercolor trays and shuffling chairs to prepare for the day, she nods toward a stack of red books. They're part of a district program to improve reading comprehension. She loathes them.

To teach the program, the gray-haired Hutchinson simply reads from the books. They tell her what to say and do. In her eyes, they make her more than three decades of teaching experience moot and take away any ability to tailor lessons to children's needs.

She knows this reading program has worked well in some other districts, and that it's designed to give novice teachers some structure. There's even some evidence that it has improved reading standards among first-graders in Oakland. But there must be a better answer, she says. Schools have changed dramatically during the past several years, with the rise of non-English speakers and one-parent families, and many solutions imposed from above, Hutchinson says, are not in touch with these realities.

Ultimatum – or a bargaining tool?

These complaints touch the heart of the issue here in Oakland, in Maryland, and nationwide: If states will hold teachers accountable for student performance, then teachers must have a say in how students learn.

Among some administrators and experts, that demand seems an unneeded ultimatum. In many, if not most districts, teachers are already included in the discussion, they say.

That's true in some cases, educators acknowledge. Yet without a law to back them, teachers say their ideas are easily dismissed.

"For years and years, we had no say at all," says Betty Weller, who teaches in Maryland's Kent County. "Just because you're there at the table doesn't mean you were listened to."

In Maryland, the collective-bargaining bill passed both houses of the legislature, and the governor has said he'll sign it. In California, the governor came out against the bill, making passage more doubtful.

Yet experts say any state with a Democratic tilt could be open to such a bill.

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