After years of random strategies that produced mixed results at best, Maryland's schools -- from kindergarten through college -- appear to be piecing together a sharper, more consistent focus on reading instruction.
Across the state, the greater stress on reading instruction is evident in myriad ways.
Beginning next summer, both new and experienced teachers will be required to take more courses in how to teach reading.
Reading specialists are back. Often the victim of budget cuts, these teachers are returning to most elementary and even middle schools to help pupils and other teachers.
State educators have formed a partnership with the Johns Hopkins University and the Kennedy Kreiger Institute to infuse classroom strategies with the latest research on reading.
Though Maryland still shies away from a statewide curriculum, a new state reading task force report now provides guidelines, encouraging teachers to focus explicitly on reading.
Many school systems around the state are paying more attention to teacher training in reading, providing more time for small-group instruction in early grades, launching programs to identify and tutor problem readers early, and trying to bolster middle-school reading skills.
Undergirding all this is a growing awareness that reading instruction has become a hot topic among parents, teachers and the public across the country.
"Reading is at the center of attention now in education," says Patricia Richardson, St. Mary's County schools superintendent and chairwoman of the state reading task force.
Adds state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick: "Everyone is very focused on reading. Any measure of reading performance tells us that this nation and this state must make reading a priority. Every [Maryland school] district has identified reading as a priority."
Scores on the 1998 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program reading tests are up in both third and fifth grades across the state, continuing a trend from 1995.
But still, only 41.6 percent of the state's third-graders are scoring satisfactorily in reading -- ranging from just 16.6 percent in Baltimore to 63.1 per- cent in Kent County.
And across the state, reading test scores for eighth-graders have remained flat since the MSPAP tests first counted in 1993, stuck at only about 25 percent of all eighth-graders reading satisfactorily.
So the push to improve reading programs retains urgency in all Maryland districts -- even as it is producing big changes in Baltimore area schools. For example:
In Baltimore, the school board has adopted a new, more phonics-oriented reading textbook series, lowered class sizes in early grades and instituted after-school programs for children who need help. City reading test scores, while still the lowest in the state, jumped this year for the first time in years.
In Baltimore County, a new early reading curriculum stressing both phonics and comprehension has brought higher reading test scores to almost three-quarters of the district's 100 elementaries. County educators are looking at restructuring the elementary school day to give some pupils more reading instruction.
In Anne Arundel County, the focus is on teacher training, with the goal of making every teacher able to teach reading. The county also is emphasizing improving reading instruction at middle schools. About half of Anne Arundel's pupils are testing satisfactorily in reading -- about the same as in Baltimore County.
In Howard County, educators say various schools are adjusting reading programs to give students more instruction in small groups and to address the drop-off in middle school performance. Howard's reading test scores are the highest in the Baltimore area, in line with the county's relatively high average income, but the county has not yet met the state's goal of having 70 percent of all pupils reading satisfactorily.
In Carroll County, schools have begun using a federal grant to test all kindergarten and first-grade pupils, identify those with potential reading problems and hire tutors to work with them individually or in small groups. The county's eighth-graders were tops on the state reading test, but only 37.6 percent scored at the satisfactory level.
In Harford County, schools also have adopted an intensive, one-on-one tutoring program for first- and second-grade pupils having problems with reading. As in Howard, Harford educators expect to be the among the first in the state to meet the 70 percent satisfactory level in reading.
More changes are coming. In his re-election campaign, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he planned to spend $120 million over the next four years to hire 1,100 more teachers -- 860 of them to teach reading and reduce class size in first and second grades across the state.
The first of these teachers could be in classrooms in September if the General Assembly approves the plan.