Board wants to raise bar for teachers More reading courses proposed to prepare education majors

'Lead in this effort'

Some board members favor performance exam for certification

December 10, 1997|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,STAFF WRITER

Maryland's plan to reform reading instruction picked up momentum yesterday as state education officials proposed more intensive teacher training in the state's colleges -- and even recommended requiring teachers to pass a special exam to become state-certified.

"I believe in Maryland we need to take the lead in this effort," state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick told the State Board of Education. "We need to say we're serious about reading."

Grasmick and leaders of a task force examining reading instruction told the board they want to quadruple the number of courses in reading instruction required for college students to become state-certified to teach preschool through eighth grade.

The state requires only one reading course for certification -- though some colleges require more courses -- and college students who major in other subjects, such as history or math, can become certified teachers with no courses in reading.

A board vote is planned for January. If approved, the reforms could begin changing course requirements on some campuses as early as next fall.

But some board members said yesterday they want even more exacting standards, requiring teachers-in-training to pass a performance exam proving they have the skills, particularly in phonics, to teach children to read. Few if any states have such an exam specifically tailored to reading.

The actions come amid widespread public concern about the failure of the nation's schools to teach students to read. About 40 percent of fourth-graders could master little or no grade-level work on the most recent nationwide reading test. Maryland ranked just below the national average.

Experts here and across the nation have blamed much of that reading failure on poor preparation of teachers at many education colleges, which for years have emphasized a "whole language" approach -- asking children to figure out words from context -- at the expense of phonics, which teaches children to sound out words.

The ideology has persisted despite decades of educational and, more recently, scientific research showing that many children need systematic instruction in the sounds of the language, or phonemes, and phonics before they can learn to read literature.

Board Vice President Edward Andrews argued yesterday that what's important is not the number of reading courses the state requires but what teachers can do with their knowledge. School systems across the nation have embraced the idea of such "performance-based" evaluations for public school students -- testing not what facts they can recite but what they can do with their knowledge.

"Can't we begin to move for personnel the way we're moving for students?" Andrews asked the board.

Arthur E. Wise, president of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, which gives the nation's colleges a prestigious seal of quality if they make it through the rigorous accreditation process, agreed yesterday that such a performance test would be key to any reform in teacher education.

"It has been demonstrated over 100 years that naming and prescribing courses is not an effective strategy," he said in an interview. "It has been employed by state boards and legislatures for decades, but it doesn't create the changes people are looking for. Colleges can move things around from one course to another to make it look like they're doing what the state is asking.

"If you want to create a system of accountability, you need a performance-based approach -- can the candidates demonstrate they have the knowledge and skills to perform effectively as teachers?"

Grasmick said she favors such a performance exam, and will ask the reading task force to study the idea, but first she wants to immediately improve the instruction of teaching candidates.

"The thing I see missing in a glaring way is phonics and the expertise required to teach it," she said. "The people at the colleges need to understand that we're not going to take teachers without that body of knowledge."

In the next several months, the reading task force -- made up of 24 representatives of school systems, colleges, parent and teacher groups -- will recommend a host of other reforms for teacher preparation and public school curricula, including what courses should be required for teachers of middle and high school and for midcareer professionals who become teachers. Grasmick wants teachers of all subjects and grade levels to be skilled in how to teach reading.

Among the thornier issues will be how to retrain the 46,000 teachers currently presiding over the state's classrooms, and the 1,500 to 2,000 teaching candidates who come from other states each year.

Patricia S. Florestano, secretary of higher education, applauded the proposed reforms yesterday.

"They're right on target," she said. "At a minimum you need teachers with formal instruction in the teaching of reading. Everything else builds on that. If you're not doing that well it doesn't matter what else you do."

Pub Date: 12/10/97

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