City schools reformer to lead Bush initiative

Doherty: Director of curriculum project will leave to oversee national push to teach reading by third grade.

January 06, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The head of a Baltimore nonprofit group that brought phonics-based reading instruction to some city schools in the 1990s has been tapped to head President Bush's $975 million reading initiative.

Christopher J. Doherty, executive director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, is set to begin tomorrow as director of the president's Reading First initiative, overseeing the distribution of grants to states and school districts that use approved reading-instruction programs.

"The bill stresses that the federal government must focus in early reading on those programs that have been scientifically proven to be effective," Doherty said yesterday. "My job will be to help identify those districts and states that show they are going to implement K-3 reading programs based on that scientific research."

Bush's No Child Left Behind Act - to be signed into law Tuesday - represents the most sweeping federal education legislation since 1965 and includes a tripling of federal spending on reading programs.

The president pledges to provide almost $5 billion over five years, modeling the program on reading reforms he oversaw in his home state of Texas. The measure targets beginning reading, with the goal that all children read proficiently by third grade. The bill sets aside $900 million for early elementary programs and another $75 million for pre-kindergarten literacy programs annually.

"This is a huge investment in reading, and it's very much representative of the administration's approach to reform and accountability by requiring schools to use reading programs that have been proven to work," said Lindsey Kozberg, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education.

Kozberg confirmed yesterday that Doherty will become special assistant to Susan B. Neuman, assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, and will focus on reading issues.

In Baltimore, educators and others who worked with Doherty mourned his departure from the city but said the federal government is getting someone knowledgeable and experienced in helping schools succeed.

"He's got a good mind for education and brings a different perspective to it," said David Clapp, principal of Barclay Elementary/Middle School. "It's a loss for Barclay and the Baltimore Curriculum Project and the city schools, but it's good to know that someone so talented is going to be at the highest levels of the federal government."

Clapp praised Doherty's "hands-on" efforts at the school, which included running an after-school program for a small group of pupils. "He didn't just want to sit on the outside and give advice. He always had to be involved," Clapp said.

Doherty, 35, has been with the Baltimore Curriculum Project since 1999, immersing himself in the group's activities in city elementary schools and in its development of lesson plans for schools nationwide.

In Baltimore, the group is best known for helping bring the Direct Instruction and Core Knowledge programs to a handful of city elementary schools.

Direct Instruction is a scripted, basic skills program that is focused on phonics - drilling on the relationship between letters and sounds, which is crucial to reading.

The reading program has expanded to become a separate "area" in the city school system, run by its own executive officer, and the project serves as an adviser to those schools. Doherty's wife, Laura, works part-time as a Direct Instruction trainer at two city elementaries.

On last spring's national standardized exams, the 17 Baltimore elementary schools using Direct Instruction generally outperformed their city counterparts.

Core Knowledge is the fact-filled sequence of learning for children from kindergarten through eighth grade, developed by University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch. The curriculum project writes lesson plans based on Hirsch's curriculum, selling them to about 700 schools nationwide.

"Chris has done a very good job working with our program," Hirsch said yesterday. "He's bright, he's been a good administrator ... and he seems to me to be a very good choice."

The curriculum project also runs two city schools, Barclay and City Springs Elementary, through Baltimore's New Schools Initiative - a quasi-charter school program that gives private groups the flexibility to choose staff, curriculum and philosophy.

The project has focused on finding successful programs and helping teachers put them into Baltimore schools - the charge given by its founder and principal source of funding, the Abell Foundation.

"They've been doing what we intended, which is trying to identify research-based education programs and implement them," said Robert C. Embry Jr., the foundation's president. "The president's program, at least in reading, is very results-oriented, and Chris' training and background make him well-suited for the position."

Doherty, who grew up in the Boston suburb of Belmont, graduated from Stanford University with an international relations degree and entered the U.S. State Department's Foreign Service.

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