Retooling teacher education necessary to produce workers for high-tech economy

March 31, 1998|By Nancy S. Grasmick

IF a child were ill, a good physician would run a battery of tests to determine the cause. If the prescribed remedy failed to yield a cure, a good physician would then change tactics, plot new courses, until an effective regimen was found. The same should hold true with reading. Unfortunately, some teachers have neither the diagnostic tools nor the prescriptive repertoire to effectively teach students how to read.

Reading difficulty is not a disease, but it is crippling to those it afflicts. In fact, officials at the National Institutes of Health now consider the inability to read a public health problem.

According to a national test, about 45 percent of Maryland's fourth-graders don't read on grade level. And, on the more rigorous Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, just 35.6 percent of fifth-graders perform satisfactorily on the reading portion of the test. While this represents a more than 10-point gain since 1993, clearly we must do more to ensure that teachers receive the diagnostic and treatment tools needed to help their students read.

As widely chronicled recently in professional and lay journals, for a great many students, phonics is key to unlocking the written word. Yet many of Maryland's teachers received no formal training in phonics during their college years.

Landmark board decision

Last month, the State Board of Education voted to significantly strengthen reading training for teachers by increasing reading-related course work. The new regulations would require teachers seeking certification in early childhood and elementary instruction to take four courses in reading. The current requirement is one course. Teachers seeking middle and high school certification would have to take two reading courses or the equivalent. Those teachers now are not required to complete any reading courses.

However, even if phonics is today's penicillin, it is not a panacea. There is no one cure-all. If there were, we would have prescribed it long ago. Phonics is one critical tool teachers need in an arsenal of reading strategies, which must also include methods to promote word and literature comprehension.

Under the state board's new requirements, teachers will have access to all these tools. Also, they will learn the process of language development, how the brain responds to reading, how to use an instructional program incorporating phonics, semantics and syntactics, and what materials to use in teaching reading and literary understanding, among other things.

Not one size fits all

How could we possibly resist the opportunity to give teachers everything they need to make informed decisions and treat students according to their individual needs? If we can't afford to adopt a one-size-fits-all mentality when treating children medicinally, we can't afford it when treating them educationally, either.

Teachers are the diagnostic, prescriptive clinicians in the classroom. They know how to prescribe the method that will help each of their students learn best. It is no secret that children learn differently -- what works well for some does not work for others. We must be able to provide a range of methods to help children acquire this most fundamental of skills, and, as emphasized in a new report from the National Research Council, we must do it in the early years of childhood.

Maryland's proposed new teacher certification and reading instruction requirements have anticipated the council's recent findings that states should revise teacher training and certification requirements to include better training in reading development, as well as ongoing professional development opportunities. Our current teacher education reform efforts mirror the council's statement that "excellent instruction is the best intervention for children who demonstrate problems learning to read." We must ensure that our teaching methods accommodate the needs of each student.

Remember, the world has become more complex. Twenty years ago, a strong back and a will to work virtually ensured a decent living. Now, our highly technological society requires increasingly high levels of literacy and education. Just as the field of medicine has made great strides in treating patients, educators must devise new therapies to meet the changing needs of students. We must incorporate research-proven strategies to give students the one thing that predates all other academic success -- the ability to read.

Nancy S. Grasmick is state superintendent of schools.

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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