Reading reform hampered by decentralization

Despite steps taken, test scores show little improvement Top priority at schools

August 02, 1999|By Howard Libit, | Howard Libit,,Sun Staff

Two years into Maryland's commitment to teach children to read better, state educators have taken steps to improve instruction but still have a long way to go to bring all children to grade level.

Maryland's teachers are required to receive more training in how to teach reading. Many of the state's school systems have inserted a bigger dose of phonics into instruction. And all local school superintendents have declared reading their top priority.

But gains in test scores for younger pupils have been minimal, and reading scores for middle school pupils have slipped.

"We still have difficulty getting more than 60 percent of fourth-graders reading satisfactorily," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "That challenges all of us. There is no silver bullet in terms of the literacy problem."

During the next few months, state educators plan more efforts to prod the state's schools to teach reading more effectively and to fight for more money from the state legislature to back up that plan.

Grasmick said she will seek a substantial increase in funds in the next legislative session to help preschoolers -- 2- , 3- and 4-year-olds -- on the theory that literacy efforts must reach children at a key stage of brain development.

But in stark contrast to the more sweeping, top-down efforts of some other states, Maryland's drive to improve reading instruction remains hampered by the decentralized structure of school administration in the state. Much of the time, Maryland officials have little more to rely on than their bully pulpit.

While the state school board can issue guidelines and make recommendations on reading instruction, it lacks the power to set a statewide curriculum for schools.

Local systems jealously guard their authority to choose textbooks, preventing the state from mandating the purchase of reading programs backed by scientific research -- as other states have done.

For example, setting up statewide summer reading camps for struggling third-graders -- which will begin in Idaho in 2000 and which hardly threaten local districts' autonomy -- is considered beyond the limits of Maryland officials' powers.

A Maryland reading task force that sought agreement last year on the proper way to teach the state's children instead became bogged down in the politics of the nation's reading wars, even as a national consensus was emerging on the subject. In the end, the task force's report was all but shelved, quietly disappearing without producing specific directives.

Campaigns' centerpiece

By contrast, in such states as Texas and California -- with their more centralized education structures -- governors have made improved reading achievement the centerpieces of their political campaigns, leading to large infusions of money for local school systems for new textbooks, more teachers and class-size reductions.

"High-profile, visible leadership is so important to successful reading reform," said Jean Osborn, co-director of the University of Illinois Children's Research Center and a consultant to Texas on reading reform. "Putting reading high on the agenda and talking about it often really helps get people's attention."

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening has stressed education -- particularly in his re-election bid last fall -- but he cannot match Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who has demanded that all teachers receive training in phonics, attempted to stop passing low-achieving pupils on to the next grade level and appointed a high-profile "reading czar," complete with a toll-free reading hot line.

"In places like California and Texas and Florida that have statewide adoption of textbooks, they're able to have a lot more control from the top down," said Christopher T. Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education and former president of Maryland's state school board. "Maryland doesn't have that, which can make it more difficult to carry out reform."

Even states without such centralized controls are getting serious about reading instruction reforms. Delaware educators, for example, are developing a statewide reading reform plan expected to be completes this fall.

To lead that task force, Gov. Thomas R. Carper appointed one of the nation's leading reading experts -- Jack Pikulski, a University of Delaware professor and former president of the International Reading Association -- and Carper's wife, a DuPont Co. manager who has taken a one-year leave to focus on reading.

"I don't have the educational background in reading, but I think I can bring a lot of public attention to the issue," said Martha S. Carper, who has visited every elementary school in Delaware to talk about reading. "I hope that I will have an impact bringing attention to the high number of kids who can't read and securing support for our plan to help fix that problem."

Maryland's efforts

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