The rusty guns of reform reload Phonics: The 'new' learning-by-phonics approach prescribed for Baltimore schools has a familiar ring. Small wonder. It's been tried before.

The Education Beat


Clarification and correction

It was The Education Beat, not Maryland State Teachers Association President Karl Kirby Pence, who referred here Aug. 25 to the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore as MSTA's "enemy" (humorously, we thought). Pence called from the Democratic National Convention to request the clarification. On Aug. 4, this column said James Watt invented the steam engine. Jarrettsville reader Gertrude Zvonar submitted encyclopedic proof that it was an English engineer, George Stephenson.

NEWS THAT SIX troubled city schools will begin emphasizing phonics this fall under a familiar reading program must have rung mental bells all over town.


Many teachers had been there, done that. Today's "Reading Mastery" program was known as "DISTAR" (for Direct Instruction Systems for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading) in the early 1970s. Baltimore spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on materials and teacher training.

DISTAR wasn't a fad in the sense that it was all the rage and then faded. Nor was it ordered citywide by a superintendent bent on making a mark, only to be supplanted by a successor. (That happened with another program known as "Mastery Learning.")

Rather, DISTAR simply never took off. Not that the Chicago company marketing it didn't try. In fact, the company treated a group of top administrators and city school board members to dinner at Danny's, then one of the city's most expensive restaurants, in June 1976.

John L. Crew, then the superintendent, didn't go to dinner with DISTAR. "If DISTAR's so good," he said later, "it will stand on its own without a free dinner."

Exactly. DISTAR was good. It was thoroughly evaluated and found effective for inner-city kids. But it was also hard work. It required strict adherence to a new set of rules by teachers who taught reading pretty much as they had been taught.

That's still the case. In the 20 years since that dinner at Danny's, city teachers have hunkered down while one reform after another has swept over them.

And now a proven method is back with a new title and a new set of clothes. "We don't want high profile," Siegfried Engelmann, the program's founder and shepherd, told Sun reporter Jean Thompson for an article in the Perspective section two weeks ago. "We want to be left alone. Two years from now, we'll take our guns out and fight anybody."

Those guns are a little rusty, but we shall see.

Genius can sometimes get off to a slow start

Here, from "The Book of Lists," are 10 celebrated people who had miserable grades in school: Albert Einstein, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, Pablo Picasso, Thomas A. Edison, Henry Ford, Giacomo Puccini and James Watt (the Scottish engineer who invented the steam engine, not the former U.S. agriculture secretary who vented steam).

Most of them were poor readers and writers. Churchill was so dull as a youth that his father thought he would never be able to earn a living, and Einstein's parents feared he was retarded because he spoke haltingly until the age of 9.

Schmoke's latest reading is full of fascinating data

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke told a group of civic and political leaders not long ago that he is reading "The Manufactured Crisis: Myth, Fraud and the Attack on America's Public Schools" (Addison Wesley, $25).

The book by David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, professors at Arizona State University and the University of Missouri, respectively, does not advocate using funds from slot-machine gambling to rescue urban schools; Schmoke got that idea elsewhere.

But anyone who thinks America's schools are doing much better than they are given credit for should peruse "Manufactured Crisis." It's plainly written and full of fascinating data.

At the very least, two of Berliner and Biddle's findings should interest the mayor. School voucher programs in France and Australia have not helped public schools; and Maryland has one of the most equitable school finance formulas in the nation.

That's the formula Schmoke's administration is challenging in the state courts.

Bolted-down desk as symbol of school standardization

An Internet forum set up by the Education Writers Association crackles with useful information, tidbits, gossip and an occasional argument.

Here's an item transmitted recently by Bill Graves of The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.:

One symbol of the standardization in American schools during the early part of this century was the bolted-down desk. A school architect in New York City designed the standardized classroom plan: 48 bolted desks for grades one through four, 45 desks for grades five and six and 40 desks for grades seven and eight.

One researcher estimated that between 1920 and 1940, 80 percent of the desks in secondary schools were bolted to the floor.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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