Schools to keep current course

City administrators say test scores show validity of programs

May 22, 2000|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Delighted with the big gains city school pupils made on reading and math tests, education officials plan to keep their current strategies while increasing efforts to teach pre-reading skills to 4- and 5-year-olds.

"For now I would stay the course," said Betty Morgan, chief academic officer of city schools.

School officials are beginning an in-depth analysis of the soaring scores reported last week from the national standardized test city elementary pupils took this spring. Sixth- and seventh-grade scores have yet to be released.

The first look suggests that several approaches to reading that have been tried in the city in the past several years are working and should be kept in place.

The increases appear to be large and widespread. Two years ago, only 29.4 percent of the city's first-graders were reading at or above grade level. Today, 48.4 percent are. First-grade reading scores improved at 89 of 121 schools.

Math scores gains, made in the first year since a new textbook was purchased, were unexpectedly large.

Gilmor and Montebello elementaries, two low-achieving schools that the state will take over this summer, saw improvements. Montebello's average first-grader scored in the 42nd percentile nationally and its fifth-graders scored in the 41st percentile, up from the 14th percentile two years ago. Gilmor had increases in nearly every grade in math and reading, although its scores continued to be far below citywide averages.

A third school, Furmon L. Templeton Elementary, had mixed results.

Two years of gains

While few educators are willing to make predictions about next year's test scores, Sam Stringfield, a school board member and Johns Hopkins researcher, said few school systems across the nation have produced large gains two years in a row.

The improvements in test scores occur three years into a multimillion-dollar effort to turn around the city's schools.

A new school board reduced class sizes in early grades, gave teachers substantial raises, offered after-school instruction to struggling pupils and purchased new reading and math textbooks for every child in kindergarten through fifth grade.

The school system also allowed a small number of schools to experiment with their curriculum or add to the city's basic programs.

Educators involved in the reform of city schools wondered which curricula would work best, and whether the city would make adjustments if it found one program was working much better than another.

"We are finding that, regardless of the approach, we are getting results," Morgan said. "If you teach children in a logical, organized manner, they will learn."

Christopher J. Doherty, executive director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, agrees, but adds that all of the approaches being used in the city are grounded in phonics, are highly structured and emphasize training of teachers. Direct Instruction, a highly scripted phonics curriculum coordinated by the Baltimore Curriculum Project, is being tried in 17 schools. Those schools posted a large increase in the number of pupils reading at or above grade level. The average first-grader at City Springs reads at the 65th percentile nationally, twice the average level two years ago. Gains in other Direct Instruction schools were not as great.

"We are happy for the gains that the area has shown," said Doherty. "When you look at how we are doing, we are really joining the pack."

Three schools are trying Success For All, a program created by a Johns Hopkins researcher and used in 1,500 schools nationwide. Those schools are starting the program this year and have seen mixed results.

Two other groups of schools are trying slightly different approaches. Achievement First schools are supplementing basic city curriculum and textbooks with teacher training, mentoring for the principal and programs to encourage parental involvement.

The central area, a group of the lowest-performing schools in the city, requires teachers to spend three hours every morning teaching reading and writing. They implemented a policy that requires struggling pupils to attend summer school, and holds back children who are not reading at their grade level at the start of the third and fifth grades.

Morgan, who is a key figure in determining the academic program for the city school system's 103,000 students, believes that schools with strong programs for preschoolers will probably show gains as well. "My hunch is that the schools that have posted good gains have had early education.

"This teaches me that we really have to be mounting excellent programs in the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten," she said.

Predictability and structure

What all the programs have in common is predictability and structure. In two classrooms in a Direct Instruction school, teachers' directions to pupils and pupils' responses will be nearly identical. In any two second-grade classrooms in the central area, pupils are likely to be learning the same lesson from the same textbook the same day.

It is this consistency that principals and teachers said last week has made an enormous difference for the thousands of children living near poverty who often move from one part of town to the next in the middle of a school year.

"Everybody is using the same reading and math books," said Cecil Elementary School Assistant Principal Norma White, who works in a school where many pupils come and go during the year. The new emphasis on uniform curriculum and textbooks has helped, she said, as has a raising of academic standards.

"We don't say these kids are in a drug-infested area and we can't do more," said Cecil Principal James Drummond. "We have high expectations for ourselves and our children."

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