"How do you make the long 'e' sound?" Turquoise Trail Charter School teacher Eliza Botsford asks third-graders Grecia Tovar and Fidel Valladares, who are struggling to spell the word "really." The students come up with "E-I" and "E-E." Botsford says those could be right, but hints that this one is like the long "e" in "eat."
"Oh, E-A?" Valladares asks.
"It's the same in 'real,' and then the 'ly,'" Botsford explains. Both kids write it correctly.
Botsford works with a small group of struggling readers at a time during her class' guided-reading period, focusing in this case on two children learning English as a second language by helping them learn to spell, and thus better recognize, words from the book they're reading. The technique she's using is based on phonemic awareness, or helping children learn to "manipulate phonemes," which are the single sounds made by combinations of letters.
Phonemic awareness, along with phonics, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary, are the "big five" elements of "scientifically based" reading instruction that a 2000 National Reading Panel study identified as proven to get results in the classroom. If state Reps. Mimi Stewart, D-Bernalillo, and Jimmie Hall, R-Bernalillo, get their way, all teachers who earn their licensure in New Mexico will be prepared to base their teaching on those five elements.
Stewart and Hall each introduced bills this legislative session that attempt to forward this agenda. Stewart introduced House Bill 74, which adds criteria to the competency new teachers must demonstrate at the end of each of their first five years. As of July 1, 2012, elementary school teachers would undergo "a rigorous assessment of the candidate's knowledge of the science of teaching reading."
Hall introduced HB 70, which would cut off general fund money for college-level teacher preparation programs that don't focus on scientifically based reading research.
A 2001 state law requires teacher preparation programs be "based on scientifically based reading research," but a study conducted last year by the National Council on Teacher Quality gave New Mexico state-funded colleges and universities an "F" for their level of compliance. Despite the proof in the pudding—only 56 percent of New Mexico students in grades three through five scored as proficient or above, according to last school year's Standards Based Assessment—deans of education from around the state rejected the findings.
"They came before the Legislative Education Study Committee and just poo-pooed all of that, saying, 'oh, well, it wasn't a New Mexico study; it wasn't people in the state; they didn't talk to us,'" Stewart says.
Central New Mexico Community College Director of Education Erica Volkers and San Juan College Director of Teacher Education and Alternative Licensure Linda Fredericks tell SFR that the NCTQ review was based on information found online about their curricula and didn't include interviews with faculty.
So last year, the state Legislature passed House Joint Memorial 16, which brought together a work group composed of Stewart, Hall, Sen. Cynthia Nava, D-Doña Ana, and deans of education from two New Mexico universities and one college. The work group appointed a panel of experts on education to conduct their own study.
"And guess what, New Mexico people, our evaluators find the same thing—that the candidates that are being prepared to enter teaching are not being taught how to teach reading on scientifically researched based methods," Hall says.
The study found that many of the programs surveyed "'missed the target' in addressing the science of reading instruction to a disappointing degree" and recommended that education faculty statewide hold a conference this spring to discuss the issues raised.
The study did praise Eastern New Mexico University for its focus on phonemes, New Mexico Highlands University for its teachers' fluency in and classroom use of the "big five," and Northern New Mexico College for its focus on phonics, including a pre-test of new students' phonics knowledge and "rounded experience" in phonics provided by the program.
But the reviewers expressed concern that San Juan College was using a 1997 textbook, published before the National Reading Panel study and based on allegedly outdated methods, and didn't appear to thoroughly address the big five in its required reading-instruction classes. They faulted Central New Mexico Community College for teaching elementary- and middle-school teachers the same methods and not emphasizing the differences in reading-development stages.
The reviewers' analyses of some programs were restricted by an apparent lack of compliance by school faculty. Fredericks tells SFR that the three adjunct faculty members that teach in her school's alternative licensure program were attending their kids' concerts the day phone interviews were scheduled and couldn't speak with the reviewers. San Juan College also didn't get all of its materials to the reviewers because they had to buy an extra set of books to send, Fredericks says. According to the reviewers' findings, SJC also inexplicably submitted a Santa Fe Community College syllabus. Meanwhile, SFCC sent photocopies of course texts and tables of contents "despite 3 specific requests" for the actual textbooks, according to the findings. SFCC Interim Dean of Education Michelle Stobnicke says there was a misunderstanding about what the school was supposed to provide.
The programs SFR contacted in an effort to sit in on their classes did not seem anxious to allow this exposure. Two Highlands University professors never returned calls or emails, and Northern New Mexico College Dean of Education Cathy Berryhill declined to allow SFR to sit in on a class despite five days' notice beforehand, writing in an email that "it is not appropriate without specific permission that I cannot obtain at this point."
The program deans and directors who spoke to SFR mostly characterized the study and the impending legislation as constructive criticism, and expressed hope that the upcoming conference would serve as a good opportunity to improve their programs.
"I hadn't really looked at our courses or scrutinized the textbooks, and one of the textbooks was obviously outdated; it had like a 1997 date, I think," Fredericks says. "I think that the reading review was good in that respect because it has made us take a closer look at what we're all doing. I really feel confident that our courses are providing our candidates with best practice and with appropriate pedagogy, but it's important to look at those things periodically, and that hadn't been done for awhile."
But Hall tells SFR that he doesn't believe all the schools are serious about changing.
"There's a couple that are talking a good game, but whether it comes through or not, I'm not sure…[they're] just giving it lip services and 'Yeah, we'll have another meeting and maybe Jimmie and Rep. Stewart will forget it for another couple of years.'"
Hall also says one university is resisting the reform effort, but declines to name it, other than to rule out University of New Mexico.
"We have concerns about [the required changes] from the perspective of it being imposed, but the fact is, we will respond and we will meet the requirements or expectations as outlined by the [Public Education Department] or anything that emerges in legislation," New Mexico State University Dean of Education Michael Morehead says. "Anytime anything's imposed, there are concerns, but we will comply."
Stewart says she thinks both the bills have strong bipartisan support, noting that she is united with Republican Hall in the effort.
"I've been [in the Legislature] for six years, and we've been talking and dancing about education for six years, and nobody's got anything done," Hall says. "I'm just tired of dancing around and not trying to hurt somebody's feelings. We're ready to have some results."