Taking a new approach to reading

The Education Beat

MSPAP: To raise pupils' scores in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, teachers are encouraged to incorporate interdisciplinary exercises.

January 16, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WOULD YOU rather vacation in Killington, Vt., or Myrtle Beach, S.C.?

That was the question put to 31 third-graders one morning last week at Leith Walk Elementary School in Northeast Baltimore. In reading class.

At least, primarily in reading class. After a discussion of the location, weather and tourist attractions of the two cities, master teacher Michael B. McNelly -- who colleagues see as a model of how teachers must reinvent their approach to reading instruction -- passed out one-page essays descriptive of each place and asked his charges to read them silently.

Then they took out pens and fell to work answering (in complete sentences) a series of questions based on the essays. Finally back to reading again, as the students read their answers aloud, arguing over which city they'd like to visit.

What additional information would you like to know about this place before planning a vacation? "I would like to know if it's safe. How does the food taste?" wrote (and read) Patrick Myers, 8. "Good point," said McNelly. "Patrick doesn't want to vacation where it isn't safe."

McNelly's lesson concentrated on reading, writing, listening and speaking, but it was also an "interdisciplinary" exercise in social studies, geography, even mathematics and science. Michael Mott, 8, was impressed that Killington temperatures at midwinter commonly reach the single digits. "I would like to know does everything freeze during nighttime which the temperature is 8 degrees," Michael wrote, indicating he needs a little work.

But Michael was thinking, thinking hard about his place in the world and what he would like to do in it. That's the essence of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) and the reason McNelly, also called "Mr. Mizpap," goes about teaching demonstration lessons at Leith Walk and other schools.

When I last visited Leith Walk last fall, the staff was nervously awaiting news of the school's 1999 MSPAP scores. Principal Edna Greer, who had immersed her school in instruction designed to lift scores on the high-stakes state test, was praying that the effort would be successful.

Led by a hefty increase in third-grade reading, Leith Walk's composite score increased enough to qualify for state commendation. Now she has to keep the pressure on, while trying to figure out what happened in the fifth grade, where scores stagnated.

Greer and McNelly know the secret to MSPAP success is good classroom instruction. That's hardly a revolutionary idea, but recent studies of MSPAP by the University of Pittsburgh show that about a third of Maryland reading teachers are engaged in the highest levels of instruction "consistent with reform-oriented educational outcomes (e.g., instruction focusing on reasoning and communications skills)."

What are the rest doing instead? According to McNelly, a 49-year-old veteran teacher, they're not encouraging "creative thinking." They're not bringing all of the language arts to the service of the primary one -- reading. They're concentrating on rote learning, "asking their students to simply regurgitate facts. And they're not relating reading to all of the other subjects."

Mark Moody, the state Education Department's testing chief, agrees. The closer you get to the classroom, he notes, the harder it is to bring about change.

Moody says he wasn't surprised when MSPAP scores hit a wall last year. "That's not unpredictable if you look at who has to change the most," he says. "The superintendents hardly have to change at all, the principals a bit more so. The classroom teachers have to change the most. They have the hardest job, and genuinely changing their activities takes years."

The University of Pittsburgh researchers unearthed another possible reason for MSPAP's stall: A strong streak of MSPAP hostility among teachers. Thirty-seven percent of Maryland teachers surveyed by the researchers said MSPAP does more harm than good, and teachers overwhelmingly rejected the use of MSPAP scores for school punishments -- or rewards.

"We've got to move teachers to higher levels," says McNelly, but it's doubly difficult when many of them aren't convinced the climb is worth it.

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