April 4, 2005
Thousands of East Valley students will read less adventure, mystery and romance next school year so they can learn more about the solar system, the Federalist Papers and geometry.
The state is not specific about how much time students should study each subject, but the Arizona Department of Education is urging schools to follow a national trend in encouraging more nonfiction reading.
Since the 1920s, schools have focused language arts classes on masterpiece works by creative writers, said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.
That effort intensified in recent years as many schools created 90-minute blocks of pure reading time, encouraging students to read what they’d like in hope of improving their reading and writing scores on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards.
The downfall, Horne said, is that while students are spending a large amount of time learning about writing and improving their reading skills, they are not necessarily learning any factual information at the same time.
Several East Valley school districts have agreed — and are considering school schedules that make more time for subject or skills-based reading.
Language arts classes, often the longest period of a day, are being cut back in some districts to create more time in other classes — for more reading of nonfiction works, especially in history and science.
And the cuts are also lending to, in some cases, a doubling of time spent in the math classroom.
"What happens is, in the first three grades there’s been too much narrative as opposed to informational reading," Horne said. "Students get to the fourth grade and they start getting information as they read science and social studies, and they’re not used to doing that kind of reading."
Students have to be reading something, Horne said, so they should be reading science and social studies and not just stories.
"There’s been some fear that the kids arriving in middle school are more ignorant in science and social studies than they were in previous years," he said.
Mike Oliver, principal of Mesa’s Zaharis Elementary School, criticizes the trend toward more nonfiction reading and the idea that teaching critical thinking through literature could disadvantage students.
While Oliver said he’s heard of elementary schools completely eliminating literature from their classrooms, he has no intention of diminishing his school’s heavy emphasis on books that make students’ imaginations soar.
"I think a lot of the schools have been reduced to test preparation factories, and the test has become the curriculum," Oliver said. "If it’s not measured, it’s not taught. Principals are telling teachers — if it’s not on the AIMS test, you can’t invest the time to teach it."
He said the effort may actually bore children and discourage reading as colorful, creative books are replaced with textbooks.
But many schools are moving in the direction that Horne would like — and the most obvious differences will be in the middle schools next year.
David Schauer, associate superintendent of the Kyrene Elementary School District, explained that the impending schedule changes will create less time for language arts but more time for nonfiction reading in science and history classes so students can practice the nonfiction reading often seen on comprehension tests — and in the business world.
Several East Valley districts are considering changes from current schedules to a block schedule system that would create equal periods for language arts, math, history and science.
"We are just beginning to look at a variety of different models," said Mike Cowan, associate superintendent of the Mesa Unified School District. "We’ll be meeting with principals and teachers next year to take a look at these models to see what is the best fit for Mesa."