Replacements for Dick and Jane Pitch: Publishers of reading textbooks offer programs that contain a little bit of everything to entice the city school system.

Education Beat

May 10, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

OVER THE PAST couple of weeks, we've watched three reading textbook publishers pitch their wares to Baltimore school officials.

It's a wonder!

All parents should get a taste of a textbook sales routine, especially if they grew up with Dick and Jane, those dull siblings of midcentury readers who got their jollies watching their dog run and visiting grandfather's farm.

Dick and Jane went out of business, but not before they were said to have ruined many of us for life because the readers in which they resided didn't have enough phonics. Nor were they politically correct. A black family moved next door in the 1960s, but it was too little, too late. Scott Foresman, the Dick and Jane publisher, hasn't been the same since. You want phonics? All four publishers whose sales pitches we saw -- the fourth on videotape -- said they had enough "direct, explicit" phonics to satisfy anyone.

You want real-life stories in which children recognize themselves? The publishers are proud of what they call "authentic text" and want to tell you about it.

You want political correctness? Modern reading programs are meticulously balanced by race and gender. (So are the teams that make the sales pitches.)

Houghton Mifflin, whose "Invitations to Literacy" series was recommended Tuesday for adoption in grades three through five, submitted a voluminous "multicultural analysis of program literature, authors and illustrators."

You want character building? Macmillan/McGraw-Hill told city officials they would throw in a component designed to build character. It would be free if the city would choose Macmillan's "Spotlight on Literacy."

Modern reading series have more extras than modern automobiles. They're not readers as much as they're programs.

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pTC Materials from Open Court and SRA Reading Mastery, two other programs under consideration in Baltimore, were delivered to The Sun. They took up an entire van. "We tend to have strong arms from hauling this material around," said Rita Rene Gribbell, the regional representative of the two publishers (which are owned by the same company).

All of this stuff comes in a riot of colors that could give you a headache if you see it in one place. That's why teachers need help learning how to teach with a modern reading program.

The publishers offer plenty of that, too. They have armies of consultants and others on call to help with teacher training.

But how does all of this play in the schools, where the new reading programs are to be used by teachers and principals in the service of thousands of students?

We contacted James R. Sasiadek, principal of Medfield Heights Elementary School, and Stephanie Terry, a first-grade teacher at Ashburton Elementary and 28-year veteran of urban schools. Both said they are delighted that city schools will get the first big influx of new reading materials in 10 years. That will be good for everyone's morale. But the considerations of these educators are pragmatic -- and middle-of-the road. They advise caution.

Sure, a sound phonics program is necessary, said Terry, but noted that she doesn't want to be "locked in, is the gentlest way I can put it. I'll try something new, but it had better be good for kids."

On the morning we contacted Sasiadek, he was in the middle of a crisis no textbook was going to solve: A student who had missed his morning medication was beating his head against a locker.

"You can't buy a book to tell you how to read," said Sasiadek, one of 35 educators on a panel this spring that recommended Houghton Mifflin and Macmillan for beginning reading. "You've got to have a person."

Because all students learn differently, Sasiadek argued, "They can't be taught the same way. If all your eggs are in one basket, you lose something."

The wondrous new reading programs notwithstanding, we suspect that is the prevailing opinion in the trenches.

Reading material for students in middle schools also due

All the discussion of beginning reading has obscured the fact that the city also is purchasing reading materials for middle school students.

Interim schools chief Robert Schiller and his staff recommended Tuesday "The Language of Literature" and "The Writer's Craft," both published by McDougal Littell, for grades six, seven and eight. "The Language of Literature" is an anthology. "The Writer's Craft" is a grammar and composition textbook. The city would spend $1.4 million on new middle school books.

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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