Guide by first lady is a promising start

Initiative: Laura Bush brings substance to her 10 tips for parents on identifying quality early reading programs.

March 04, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IF ONE OF the first documents to be released in first lady Laura Bush's education initiative is any indication, we're in for more substance than many thought possible.

"A Guide for Parents: How Do I Know a Good Early Reading Program When I See One?" is remarkable for its detailed direction.

Granted, some of the guidance is generalization: "Every teacher is excited about reading and promotes the value and fun of reading to students."

But beyond a few such statements, Bush's 10 tips specify how much time children should spend in reading instruction, how many times a week they should be tested, and how many times they should practice spelling. Examples:

* "Reading instruction and practice lasts 90 minutes or more a day in first, second and third grades and 60 minutes a day in kindergarten."

* "All students in first, second and third grades who are behind in reading get special instruction and practice. These students receive, throughout the day, a total of 60 extra minutes of instruction."

* "Students have daily spelling practice and weekly spelling tests."

* "Students write daily. Papers are corrected and returned. By the end of second grade, students write final copies of corrected papers. Corrected papers are sent home for parents to see."

"All students are read to each day from different kinds of books."

And just as her husband advocates vouchers without using the loaded word, Laura Bush avoids the sensitive word "phonics" when urging parents to look for phonics in their neighborhood schools: "Reading instruction and practice includes work on letters, sounds and blending sounds. Students learn to blend letters and sounds to form new words."

The guide was posted on the U.S. Education Department's Web site ( last week on the day the first lady, a former librarian, launched her "Ready to Read, Ready to Learn" campaign at a public school in Hyattsville. There's more on the Web site, including the Bushes' rationale for literacy activities among the youngest children. As governor of Texas, George W. Bush paid to train 17,000 kindergarten teachers to evaluate all children "to see what they know and what they need to become good readers."

The first lady says that's what parents should be looking for in their kids' kindergartens.

It will be fascinating to see whether Laura Bush will act as a public relations agent for her husband's education initiatives, or whether she will wade in and confront some of the issues head-on. The guide for parents is a promising start.

Right idea, wrong blame

In the same week that Laura Bush spoke out for phonics and 60 minutes of daily reading instruction in kindergarten, a report issued in Annapolis said only two in five Maryland children are fully prepared for the rigors of that first year of formal schooling.

Wait a minute. Don't we have this wrong? Shouldn't we be saying that the kindergartens of Maryland are fully prepared to educate only two out of five children? Who's at fault here, parents, day care centers and Head Start, or public schools that haven't gone out to meet the 60 percent of 5-year-olds who aren't ready?

"I can see making a statement like that about eighth-graders not being ready for high school," said one observer, "but this is the beginning of formal schooling. It's kindergarten, for heaven's sake!"

Whether you agree with that criticism, ever-earlier formal education is here to stay. The kindergarten readiness report was issued in Annapolis at a first-ever legislative budget hearing on the subject of readiness.

In the spirit of those who insist that the new millennium began this year, maybe we should retire that lovely German word "kindergarten" and replace it with "grade 0."

More MSPAP criticism

We've heard recently from Stan Metzenberg and Barbara Gunn, two West Coast academics who participated in a highly critical, but unpublished, evaluation of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. Metzenberg looked at MSPAP's science tests, Gunn examined its reading tests.

Here's what the two said about MSPAP and reading: "MSPAP is not adequately measuring if children can read. Students are not tested on foundational reading skills until third grade, even though reading failure begins in first grade. ... What is more, many of the test items that allegedly measure reading skills call for written answers, thus measuring writing rather than reading ability."

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