Schools are only as good as their teachers

May 27, 1998|By Nancy S. Grasmick

WHEN Maryland launched its school reform efforts in 1990, it set about building some of the toughest tests in the nation -- tests that required every student not only to know the basics but know how to apply the basics as well.

Since then, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) has challenged students year after year and has helped our teachers focus their teaching on core academic improvements.

Yet despite the rigor of the tests, MSPAP is working. And the most solid gains are being posted in classrooms where teachers set high expectations for students, teach the basics first, then move to that next level to ask, "Do you know how to use this information in a real-life situation? Can you use these tools to solve problems?"

Reading expectations

The challenges of high expectations are nowhere more evident than in reading instruction. Third-grade reading performance has improved steadily, but at a slower rate than other subjects such as mathematics. Why?

I believe part of the solution is in more reading at home and in improved teaching. MSPAP has identified these and other challenges in reading instruction, and our comprehensive plans to improve reading performance reflect that data.

Are these concerns unique to Maryland, or are they attributable to MSPAP? Hardly. Our MSPAP reading scores are similar to Maryland's performance on national tests such as the National Assessment of Education Progress and the Comprehensive Test Basic Skills.

Those scores reflect national trends as well, leading us to believe that we all have some significant challenges ahead as a nation, and I am most encouraged about the work we are doing in Maryland in this area.

Reading reform in Maryland isn't just about testing. The state is taking a number of actions to improve reading instruction and address all the reading needs we have pinpointed.

After spending a year examining student reading, a task force of reading experts will soon offer a list of recommendations to sharpen instruction.

We also must improve the way we prepare prospective teachers for the classroom, and we must improve the way we upgrade their skills throughout their teaching careers. This means

ensuring that all teachers have in their repertoires a balanced and comprehensive set of skills, including the teaching of

phonics.

We must provide teachers with clearer description about what is to be taught and tested so they will better understand school system and state expectations.

In June, the State Board of Education will consider a proposal to increase teacher preparation requirements in reading. Through the use of yearlong internships at schools across Maryland, prospective teachers are receiving meaningful hands-on experiences. And a network of such centers supported by the State Department of Education is also training school personnel to interpret and use test score data to plan for better instruction.

Meanwhile, we are studying schools that perform well on MSPAP for clues to their success. We have learned that principals and teachers in those schools expect students to perform at high levels and use many of the best research-proven instructional techniques. A host of other studies have been completed recently or are under way to look critically at teaching and learning and to help us to make schooling work better for all children.

Studies by the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Maryland, the Council for Basic Education and other research groups, as well as our own staff, are filling in the missing pieces of this tapestry of learning success.

Maryland will meet its responsibility to provide leadership in school reform. We cannot provide every piece of the solution for every school. Each school and school system must address the unique needs of their own students; no one size fits all.

But we can set the standards and provide a top-quality test for schools to use. We can enhance teacher training requirements, and we can give teachers and principals the research they need to discover what works best. We can help with staff development.

Five years from now, I believe that students will be reading at much higher levels -- if we attend to solid teacher preparation and continued professional development for all teachers. They will have all of the basic skills, the phonics skills and the comprehensive skills to become good readers and lifelong learners.

Ample challenges

So while ample challenges are ahead as we unravel the mysteries of reading for each child, the good news is this: Every year our collective knowledge grows, and every year the skills and abilities of our young readers are refined.

We must continue our efforts to prepare our children.

Nothing less is acceptable.

The writer is superintendent of Maryland public schools.

Pub Date: 5/27/98

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