Santa Barbara News Press

Teachers Debate the Best Way to Close the Reading Gap

When Jo Ann Caines took the principal post at La Cumbre Junior High last spring, she was appalled.

Not so much by kids loitering in the hallways during class time, or by the chronic tardiness of students at what was then Santa Barbara’s version of an inner-city school. Instead, she was dismayed by what she felt was a dumbed-down English program, foisted upon the school’s native Spanish-speaking population — about half of the school’s student body. This fall, Ms. Caines banished the program — called Corrective Reading — for that group. “It is a very scripted program: There’s no thinking, certainly no critical thinking,” she said.

But other educators swear by the curriculum. At Santa Barbara’s other middle and high schools, about 500 students — 5 percent of the district’s population — are still taking the class, which has produced positive results on test scores.

Corrective Reading, also known as Reading for Success, focuses on rote skills such as timed reading, not literature. Until this year, many students at La Cumbre had to take Corrective Reading for two or even three periods a day, so they couldn’t take electives such as choir or theater. Many went without science.

Does it aim too low, or is Ms. Caines aiming too high?

Few local education experts claim to know. But one thing is certain: Test scores of struggling students need to improve faster for La Cumbre and some other schools to avoid harsh penalties under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Also, Ms. Caines says it will take bold measures to close the stubborn achievement gap between low-income, mostly Latino students and more affluent, mostly white students.

Corrective Reading is meant to teach reading to seventh- and eighth-graders who read at fifth- and sixth-grade levels or lower. Although at La Cumbre it was widely used by English learners, it was designed for special-education students. (In Santa Barbara’s schools, many students fall into both categories.)

The fast-paced class is an odd sight to behold, described by one teacher as a “drill sergeant” environment.

The coursework requires the instructor to use some sort of metronome — a hand-held clicker, a finger snap or a pen used as a drumstick — to tap a cadence for the students who, with heads down in their books and fingers following along, must call out answers on command. Ninety percent of their grade is based on classroom participation. There is very little homework.

Ms. Caines believes that the rudimentary nature of the workload sets students up for failure.

“You can’t expect kids to master standards that they are not being taught,” she said.

Other educators hail the program, saying it’s a way to catch kids slipping through the cracks, possibly into the abyss of lifelong illiteracy.

“The students are constantly engaged,” said Kathy Dubock, who teaches Corrective Reading at Santa Barbara Junior High. “All their points are accumulated in class. It’s designed that way so they will be successful — many never have been. It’s really exciting to see them blossom.”


The polarized opinions underscore the daunting challenge of teaching English in a K-12 system where an unusually large percentage of children — roughly a quarter — do not speak English fluently.

The task is further complicated by the current pressure-cooker era of high-stakes testing. No Child Left Behind wields a heavy hammer for schools that fail to boost the scores of struggling, often minority, students.

For La Cumbre, the stakes this year are higher than ever. If it doesn’t significantly improve the test scores of certain subsets of students — primarily English learners — it will enter its fourth year of sanctions. Possible consequences: “contract with outside agency to manage the school,” “state takeover,” “reopen school as a charter” and “replace all or most staff, including principal.”

As for Corrective Reading, teachers and administrators admit that the lessons do not even begin to prepare students for meeting the instructional standards adopted by the State Board of Education in 1997.

The standards, for instance, call for seventh-graders to be able to “Identify and analyze recurring themes across works (i.e. value of bravery, loyalty and friendship; the effects of loneliness).”

For students in Corrective Reading, those standards are lofty.

The class is meant to give kids the tools to sound out words. To the average adult reader, it is clearly remedial.

In a typical workbook exercise, pupils are given six words and a passage with a missing word. The students are asked to fill the blank with one of the six words.

Question: “They found a ‘blank’ to their problem.”

Answer: “Solution”

Question: “Sam lost the ‘blank’ with Cindy.”

Answer: “Argument”

Superintendent Brian Sarvis said he believes Corrective Reading has been a great success. With this in mind, he said he is reserving judgment about La Cumbre’s plan.

“(Corrective Reading) does produce results, but the question is, can you produce those same results in a different way?” he said. “That’s part of the grand experiment here.”

He added, “I have a lot of confidence in the school’s ability to deliver, so I’m not particularly worried about it.”


At La Cumbre, Ms. Caines instituted a change this fall that even she describes as bold. She not only axed Corrective Reading, but also skipped a middle level for the vast majority of her English learners.

The middle ground, a less phonics-based course called High Point, is designed for English learners and is also widely used across the district. (In general, High Point is geared toward English learners and Corrective Reading is geared toward special-education students, but in Santa Barbara the crossover is significant.)

Now at La Cumbre, the same grade-level English textbooks are given to the vast majority of students, English learners and “gifted and talented” kids alike.

The kids appreciate this, and not just because they love literature. For them, the change has removed a painful marker of pecking order: the color of their English textbook. In fact, students at La Cumbre used to refer to their English classes by color, not name, Ms. Caines said. (“Are you in the green class or the yellow?”) But now, all seventh-graders carry green English books; all eighth-graders, red. In a sense, it’s similar to the logic behind a dress code.

But for Ms. Caines, the change is more about content than confidence.

“I think truly, had I been one of the students, I would have dropped out of school,” she said.

As for the measurable results of her move, the jury’s still out. Students don’t take their annual barrage of tests until spring; schools don’t see the results until summer.


What English learners are now reading at La Cumbre is a stark contrast to Corrective Reading.

In the series of textbooks called “Literature and Language Arts” by Holt, students read from authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Amy Tan.

They read short stories, essays and articles to study concepts such as “putting analogies to work,” “omniscient point of view” and “presenting an argument.” Their lessons are directly aligned with the California standards.

La Cumbre eighth-grader Nancy Valencia has experienced both curricula. She said she much prefers this year’s more challenging reading assignments.

“I like the stories,” she said. “They talk about life.”

Last year, she had two periods of Corrective Reading, so she couldn’t take an elective course. She said she hopes to one day become an actor, choreographer or a counselor who helps kids. This year, she’s taking dance.

Her favorite short story, “The Circuit” by Francisco Jimenez, is about a boy who is the son of migrant farmworkers in California.

The boy, who had spent his young years in the fields, moves to a new town and enrolls himself in the sixth grade. He says he would like to learn how to read and play the trumpet. But soon enough, his family moves again. The story ends with the family packing, leaving the reader uncertain about the boy’s fate.

But some students appeared less confident than Nancy, suggesting that a wide gulf in skill level exists among so-called English learners.

One boy, upon being asked how many periods of English he takes, shyly replied, “six,” only to be corrected by his peers. (It’s two.)

Ms. Caines is sailing her ship into uncharted waters. Under her unique plan, instead of taking remedial English, special-education students and English learners take two periods of the same regular English class.

In short, they get extra time to learn the same stuff.

Teacher Joanne Thompson said so far it’s working: Her English learners are scoring on par with her honor students.

“I give them the same test,” she said. “The other thing is the discussion. You would never know it wasn’t an honors class.”

But not all teachers were on board last spring. One La Cumbre teacher, unable to reconcile her opposition, moved to La Colina Junior High, where she still teaches Corrective Reading.

Another La Cumbre teacher, Josephine Moore, initially disagreed with the mandate.

But her outlook did an about-face this fall, when she saw the students’ reaction to literature. “What if you never show a kid how to run, you just show them how to walk?” she said.

“They would never know there is running going on. They would never know there’s a faster way.”

By the test scores alone, the success of Corrective Reading is mixed. When it comes to closing the achievement gap between regular and remedial students, it has steadily closed the canyon by a couple inches a year.

For example, in 2003-04, on a standardized English test taken by all students in the secondary district, the average score of regular students dropped one point, from 59 to 58 out of 100.

But the score of Corrective Reading students gained three points, from 25 to 28.

And at La Cumbre, during the Corrective Reading years, the proportion of English learners scoring “proficient” (or grade-level) more than doubled, from 8 percent in 2002-03 to 19 percent last school year. On the other hand, La Cumbre’s English learners still fell well shy of the federal target of 24 percent. Also, their scores last year were the lowest of the district’s four middle schools’ English learners.


Corrective Reading was introduced to La Cumbre in 2000. At the time, the test scores of the school’s English-learner population were in the basement.

The change was spurred by then-Santa Barbara school board member Ruth Green, now the president of the State Board of Education. (She was nominated to the post by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

Alarmed by the curriculum void for La Cumbre’s English learners, the well-connected Ms. Green put local school officials in touch with a reading consultant in Sacramento. The consultant told school officials that Corrective Reading would produce fast results.

Back then, she said, schools didn’t have nearly as much to work with in the way of standards-based curricula.

“Looking over the long haul, we’re relatively new to the game,” Ms. Green said, referring to how the standards weren’t adopted until the late 1990s.

“Materials written to those standards did not come along until a few years later. We get better at it as we go along.”

At La Cumbre, Corrective Reading is still taught to about 60 special-education students, but Ms. Caines said she hopes to eventually weave the literature-based program into their schedules, as well.

Corrective Reading did not shield La Cumbre from the cudgel of the No Child Left Behind law, signed by President Bush in 2002.

In 2003, La Cumbre became the first school on the South Coast to be penalized, largely for the test scores of its English learners. The school, like all schools in their first year of No Child sanctions, was forced to tell parents they could send their children to other schools, with the district footing the bill for transportation. A wave of white, middle-class students left.

Since then, Santa Barbara Junior High has joined La Cumbre on the list, also for the performance of its English-learner population.

At La Cumbre, in the two years after the school was sanctioned, the proportion of Latino students rose from 82 percent to 88 percent.

But while some education officials blast No Child for segregating the school, others credit the law for spurring improvement.

Either way, Ms. Caines is keenly aware of the pressure, though she insists that she would have initiated major changes without No Child Left Behind.

“It was time for some really bold action,” she said.

“And ‘timid’ is not a description you would use for me, would you?”