Reading Initiative bears fruit

The Education Beat

Literacy: A Montgomery County program designed for first- and second-graders has significantly improved their reading skills.

September 26, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

A YEAR AGO, school officials in Montgomery County pulled out every stop in an ambitious and expensive effort to improve reading in the first and second grades.

This fall they've taken a first look at the results. They like what they see.

A sample of 18 schools shows that Montgomery pupils substantially increased their reading fluency and comprehension between February and June.

Montgomery tested pupils in fluency (the ability to read aloud without stumbling) and comprehension (the ability to understand what one has read). In both categories, pupils showed substantial increases.

What is more, while pupils from all racial and ethnic groups improved -- and there remains a wide gap between whites and minorities -- African-American and Hispanic pupils showed the greatest gains in the Montgomery Reading Initiative.

"These first-year results show that we're on to something," says Patricia Flynn, the county's director of academic programs. "We have a long way to go, but we're beginning to get some answers as to where we want to put our resources."

Montgomery launched the program last year at 54 schools with marked poverty levels. This year, the Reading Initiative was expanded to the remaining 67 elementary schools, and there are plans to extend it to kindergarten.

The recently released "Year 1 Report," as Montgomery officials call it, will likely be less fascinating than the second- and third-year evaluations.

Will the low-income schools continue to show improvement? And what will happen at the affluent schools entering the initiative this year, with classrooms full of children steeped in literacy since birth? Will these children also benefit from smaller class sizes and mandatory 90-minute reading periods each morning?

And how will third-grade Maryland school performance scores next year compare with each school's historic record?

Montgomery did so many things that it's impossible to isolate any one effective cause, particularly after only one year. Flynn says that although the initiative is "peeling back the onion" of reading instruction, there's no intention to isolate factors this early.

Clearly, the countywide reduction of reading class size to 15 is the star of the show. But the mandatory reading periods may have played a role, as well as the intensive training of teachers these past two summers.

That training, says Flynn, isn't designed to show primary teachers how to "stand and deliver." Rather, they are given ample time to observe master teachers in action and to work with colleagues in teams rather than sit through lectures.

In short, Montgomery is a few strides ahead in Maryland reading reform. That's good for Montgomery, but isn't it too bad the other 23 districts aren't keeping pace?

`Banned Books Week' critics abound this year

Usually when the American Library Association (ALA) releases a resource guide for "Banned Books Week," there's not a whole lot of resistance. This year is different. Led by talk-show host Laura Schlessinger and a network of conservative groups, there's a vociferous anti-ALA movement.

The ALA's Banned Books Week runs through Oct. 2, and it's being promoted in bookstores, libraries and schools nationwide -- often with displays of volumes, like "To Kill a Mockingbird," that have been banned over the years.

But the week "promotes intolerance, not reading," says Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for Focus on the Family. "The ALA reduces the issue of censorship to nonsense. For example, according to the ALA, if a school administrator moves a sexually explicit book from a junior high curriculum to a high school curriculum because of age-appropriateness concerns, that is a sinister incident of censorship. How ridiculous!"

The protesting groups also criticize the ALA's insistence that children and teens have the same rights as adults to select the materials they wish to read or view. Minnery, Schlessinger and others urge parents to be careful about what children are exposed to on the Internet, and in school and public libraries.

Says Minnery: "If schools and libraries want to maintain the trust they have with parents, they must not demonize those concerned parents who seek the best education for their children."

Pub Date: 9/26/99

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