After months of debate extending from pre-schools to graduate schools, a plan to stiffen reading course requirements for Maryland's 47,000 teachers sailed through the State Board of Education yesterday.
The 11-1 vote was a clean political victory for state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. The changes were opposed by the state teachers union and a vocal group of college deans and threatened by pending gubernatorial appointments that could have eroded support on the board.
All aspiring elementary school teachers will have to pass four courses in reading to be certified, and middle and high school teachers must pass two courses. The state now requires only one reading course, though a number of colleges require more.
Though the plan was in jeopardy in recent weeks, the planets seemed to be aligned in Grasmick's favor yesterday.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who originally expected to name two new board members by yesterday's meeting, had not made the appointments.
And board members who had winced at telling education colleges what to do were appeased by Grasmick's assurances that the course requirements were only the first step -- a "kick-start" -- toward broader reforms that would embrace the colleges' own ideas.
"This is one of the most significant initiatives during my tenure as state superintendent," Grasmick said after the vote. "Reading is a foundation skill, and I don't believe we'll ever achieve the high standards that we've established through school reform efforts unless children are taught to read. And I don't believe the colleges have the comprehensive approaches to reading that teachers need in the classroom."
The plan represents a concrete step toward reforming reading instruction in a state where nearly two-thirds of third-graders don't meet state standards, and fourth-graders score slightly below the national average, despite the state's above-average per capita income.
The changes will also affect the 47,000 teachers already working, who will need to master the courses -- or prove that they have already taken comparable ones -- to be recertified. In cases where teachers can prove they are exceptionally skilled, Grasmick has the authority to waive the requirement. Though the changes take effect this fall, many colleges will not begin offering the courses until the 1999-2000 school year because this year's catalogs are already published. The content of the courses will be more clearly defined in coming weeks.
Bumpy road to changes
The road to these changes has been bumpy, marked with feuds over whether to strengthen training through more courses or through a performance exam. But underlying that question is a disagreement about whether the State Board of Education should interfere with colleges' academic freedom even though they are sending teachers into classrooms unprepared to teach reading properly.
Some of the strongest opposition has come from college deans who have called instead for a performance test that would leave course work up to the colleges but hold them accountable for their candidates' skills.
Grasmick and board members promised yesterday to work quickly to develop a performance test similar to one recently produced for California that could co-exist with or eventually replace the required courses. Grasmick also told board members that the state education department plans to distribute $1.7 million this school year to school districts for teacher training.
Jack Wisthoff, a math instructor at Anne Arundel Community College who cast the lone opposing vote, said he worried about dedicating so much time to one subject at the expense of other subjects. When new courses are imposed on teacher candidates, he said, they usually replace academic courses rather than education courses. The result is poorly educated teachers such as those highlighted recently in Massachusetts, where more than half the teaching candidates flunked a reading and writing test.
"They know the things they get in education school," Wisthoff said, " but they can't spell, they can't add, they can't subtract."
Ultimately, said another board member, Raymond "Buzz" Bartlett, the state board shouldn't be telling colleges how to teach reading. But the state has waited too long for the colleges to train teachers adequately, he said.
"We're going to give them a kick-start," he said. "The crisis is here."
Susan Arisman, president of the Maryland Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said she was pleased that expert teachers can request a waiver from the requirements, and she promised to work with the state board on the new courses as well as a performance exam.
'One size fits all'
But she added: "We're disappointed they accepted a one-size-fits-all formula. To say that the courses are needed for children in our most affluent schools and the same four courses are needed in schools of high poverty is not reasonable and will not address the gap in minority-majority achievement. If we had a performance assessment, we'd know what we had to do for teachers going into these high-need schools."
The state teachers union supports the push for better training and clear standards, said Robert Moore, education reform specialist at the Maryland State Teachers Association. But he, too, criticized the plan for imposing a uniform requirement when schools vary widely in their needs.
"There are schools where reading is not an issue," he said. "Other subject matter may be an issue. I expect we'll have schools coming to the state board asking for waivers from reading regulations because it's getting in the way of school improvement."
Pub Date: 7/30/98