City effort to teach reading hurt by jumbled approach Board decision advancing phonics-based curriculum expected to end confusion

March 22, 1998|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

In Baltimore, the City that Reads, a years-long absence of a uniform reading curriculum in public schools has produced a dizzying jumble of approaches -- some phonics-based, but mostly whole language -- to teaching young children to read.

Harford Heights, Baltimore's largest elementary school, uses Silver Burdette Ginn readers for young children and the Macmillan series for older pupils.

Barclay Elementary uses Addison Wesley's basal readers for kindergarten through third grade and Junior Classics literature for fourth and fifth.

Lyndhurst Elementary relies on the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Treasury of Literature for all five grades.

In some city schools, teachers can't plan lessons together because they do not have the same materials and are not teaching the same curriculum.

If a child changes schools in the city -- as an estimated 40 percent do each year -- confusion often reigns. How much does the child know? What skills has he or she been taught? Until now, teachers have been left to guess, and hope that their approach somehow matches what the child previously had.

The results: Fewer than 15 percent of the city's third-graders did satisfactory work on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program reading test last year. A citywide reading diagnostic test last fall showed Baltimore's children falling further behind in reading the longer they attend school.

Next fall, the guessing and confusion in reading instruction should end. On March 14, the new city school board voted unanimously to identify one or two phonics-based curricula for city schools.

"Now we will have the go-ahead and the funds to put into our teachers' hands the tools and the materials they need to do their jobs well," said Clarissa Evans, the city's director of curriculum and instruction. "There are truly gifted teachers who can make the current system work. But the average teacher has been finding that difficult to do."

The new curriculum will be used in the majority of city schools, Evans said.

The only exceptions will be schools using successful approaches, and a limited number that will be allowed to select whole-school reform efforts such as Direct Instruction and Success For All. Those programs come with reading curricula.

Evans and the school system's other curriculum specialists have begun the process of reducing the 15 or 16 reading curricula to one or two.

They have surveyed surrounding counties to see how they teach reading. They have identified how the city's 120 elementary schools teach reading. And they have contacted book publishers, asking them to submit data that showhow well their approaches have worked in other cities.

"Our research and evaluation department will look especially closely at what the book publishers submit, to find out who is presenting hard data, who is presenting semihard data and who is presenting fluff," Evans said.

A publisher should be chosen by the end of April, Evans said, and the system will begin buying materials and training teachers this summer. By September, everyone should be on the same page, with the same tools.

At Barclay Elementary, Principal Gertrude Williams welcomes the new curriculum, but worries that it might supplant her school's Calvert curriculum, a modification of the rigid, phonics-based curriculum used at the prestigious Calvert School.

PTC "Our curriculum is already phonics-based, and it has been for years," Williams said. "We had to fight to get that curriculum in this school, and I don't think our teachers and parents will let it go without another fight."

Williams added that the curriculum alone won't help schools do better. Teacher training is as important.

"A good teacher's handbag has a lot more in it than the books," Williams said. "They need to teach so that the child sees the word, hears the word and maybe even can feel the words. They need to teach with consistency and repetition, so children learn the skills they need.

"You can have the best books in the world, but if the teacher doesn't know how to use them, it's wasted material."

Harford Heights Principal Goldye Sanders said she knew the materials her school was using were inadequate. So she supplemented them with materials she had from her days as a teacher in a school that participated in Success For All, a school reform movement that stresses phonics instruction in the early grades.

"After we got our scores on the citywide diagnostic tests, we knew we had to do better and our children needed to know more about how to decode words," Sanders said. "We had to do it in a hurry, though, and we had no money, so I grabbed the materials I had."

She said she welcomes a citywide curriculum.

"We all know we need it," she said. "It will be nice to know the school district will make sure we have it."

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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