EMMITSBURG - While Maryland children were enjoying summer vacation last week, many of their teachers and principals were in seminar rooms searching for ways to improve reading instruction. A primary concern: the lagging performance of middle-schoolers.
Teams from middle schools in all 24 of the state's systems gathered at Mount St. Mary's College for the fourth annual Maryland Reading Network conference, while 100 public school principals focused on reading at a three-day session in suburban Baltimore.
"Disengagement from reading is the real crisis in middle school," John T. Guthrie, a University of Maryland, College Park education researcher, told the principals' meeting at the Maritime Institute of Technology in Linthicum on Monday.
He cited surveys showing that 65 percent of Maryland eighth-graders find reading boring, while 27 percent never read for fun on their own.
At the Emmitsburg meetings Monday through Thursday, teams of four or five teachers and administrators, selected by superintendents from each of the state's districts, discussed middle-school reading reform for four days.
As eighth-grade reading scores on Maryland's annual exams have stagnated, more attention is being devoted to the need for teachers in middle school to be reading instructors, regardless of what they teach.
"Secondary people tend to be very content-specific," said Raymond Francis, an assistant professor at Central Michigan University. "`I teach math. Don't bother me about reading. Don't bother me about science.'"
But with large numbers of children entering middle school with below-level reading skills, instruction has become difficult for teachers of all subjects. After all, children are expected to be able to learn science and math by reading science and math textbooks, not just literature for English class.
"We now have kids raised completely in the whole language period, and these kids don't have the capacity to sound out the names of unfamiliar countries," said Thomas M. Stroschein, principal of Baltimore's Maree Garnett Farring Elementary School. "That makes it difficult to teach lessons about geography."
Even social studies and English instruction can be difficult in middle school because of reading deficiencies, and teachers at the conference learned ways to better prepare pupils to read difficult stories and books.
"They are constantly asked to read texts beyond their emotional experiences," said Lois T. Stover, chairwoman of the educational studies department at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "They tend to get bored and turned off, and they actually rebel."
By the conclusion of the conference Thursday morning, the school teams had begun developing plans to improve reading instruction, and most of the schools expect to continue sharing successful techniques.
Principals meeting near Baltimore cheered when state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick vowed to relieve them of some administrative responsibilities "so you can do your most important job, building instructional capacity."
Many of the principals complained - and Grasmick agreed - that they have to train new teachers to teach reading because schools of education are falling down on the job.
The principals discussed everything from classroom observations to technology and use of the state's new Web site, and they exchanged tips for improving Maryland School Performance Assessment Program reading scores.
"I'm taking back a lot of good suggestions," said Linda Fleming, principal and teacher at Swan Meadow Elementary-Middle School in Garrett County, which has a large enrollment of Amish and Mennonite children, many of whom speak English as a second language and have no televisions, giving them limited experience with English.