City schools face textbook realities

The Education Beat

Friction: Baltimore finds it's difficult to judge its books by their covers.

May 28, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

NEW TEXTBOOKS got much of the credit for the remarkable gains in reading test scores registered by Baltimore children this spring.

The new books, particularly the program published under the Open Court title for the crucial early years when kids learn to read, represented the first citywide textbook adoption in more than a decade. Given two years of enthusiastic teaching, consistent instruction across the city and a heavier emphasis on phonics, Baltimore children rang up significant gains.

First-graders scored 20 points higher than first-graders of two years ago. And the original children, now in the third grade, improved by almost 10 points.

All hail the teachers (and the kids and their parents). But someone had to get the teachers with the program, and therein lies a tale of friction at the intersection of business and education.

Textbook publishing is a business. Open Court's parent, SRA McGraw-Hill, is a subsidiary of McGraw-Hill, one of the world's largest publishers. (It also publishes, through another subsidiary, the exam I'm discussing, the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills.) Textbooks and tests are products, and success with their products -- as measured by higher test scores -- gives publishers bragging rights as they compete for business across the country.

That's why all textbook companies promise (in remarkably vague language) to provide "consultants" to train teachers and to trouble-shoot during the life of a contract, typically five years. It's a lot more complicated than unpacking the books and starting on Page 1. Open Court is a program as well as a product, and it requires careful training to be successful.

Almost from the beginning, SRA and city school officials clashed. The city's reading program replaced by Open Court was such a mess that SRA had to engage more consultants than it wanted, and the cost of the training began to eat into profits. The company paid for more than 1,300 "consultant days" in the first two years of the contract at a cost of $1.1 million, nearly half of the $2.4 million Open Court contract.

Now the city is 40 percent of the way through the five-year contract, and SRA, having trained a cadre of teachers and principals, is about to phase out its Baltimore consulting.

SRA will continue summer training for new teachers and will maintain a Baltimore presence, but on a smaller scale. "I guarantee that we're not going to walk away," said Jack Witmer, an SRA consultant and until March the president of the Columbus, Ohio-based company. "We'll provide a level of service to maintain the progress we saw this year on CTBS."

SRA has urged the city to seek supplemental funding for teacher training. Each time the company has been rebuffed. "We advised them that if they wanted the level of service of the last two years, they would have to seek outside funding, and we suggested places they could go," said Gary O'Brien, SRA eastern vice president.

City school officials speak confidently of their ability to go it alone.

"In the first two years we've developed our own capacity," said Betty Morgan, the chief academic officer. "We have to support ourselves, be self-sufficient. We needed that bridge, but now we can do it on our own. We have master teachers trained in Open Court in every elementary school. We've got the momentum, and we're not going to lose it."

Added Morgan: "We are not a giant cash cow."

Open Court has considerable outside help in other cities where it has contracts. In Sacramento, billionaire David Packard, son of the late electronics pioneer, is subsidizing an early-reading effort known as Reading Lions to the tune of $15 million yearly. The extra help has allowed Sacramento to hire and train reading coaches in every elementary school. It's paid off in steadily rising test scores.

Los Angeles, which is installing Open Court in 237 schools this year, has similar help from Packard and the reading initiative of California Gov. Gray Davis. Houston, another Open Court stronghold, gets extra help from Gov. George W. Bush. Baltimore has no similar angels.

SRA says if Baltimore wants to succeed, it will have to find new money to sustain investment in training. City school officials believe they can succeed relying on their own resources and a staff of trained teachers. This year -- and it's only one year -- they have scores to prove they're on track.

Can they stay on track? Thirty years of unsustained, failed reform efforts say no.

But maybe Morgan is right. Maybe this is a new era.

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