Phonics-based curriculum could be in trouble in city

Officials privately discuss concern about future of Open Court approach

August 17, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

As a deadline approaches for selecting literature textbooks for Baltimore schools, there are signs that a highly successful phonics-based reading curriculum may be in trouble.

Schools chief Carmen V. Russo and Chief Academic Officer Cassandra W. Jones insisted this week they are committed to phonics instruction, which teaches children to break down words into letters and sounds, and they praised it for helping raise reading scores.

But there's evidence of a diminished commitment to the city's Reading by 9 initiative, with the Open Court Publishing Co. textbook series at its heart:

The city has moved to drop another phonics-oriented national program, Success for All, from three schools. The program, founded in Baltimore by Johns Hopkins University researchers in the late 1980s, has twice disappeared from city schools.

Most returning teachers, who begin professional development next week, will be discussing techniques of "whole language," an approach to reading instruction that puts less emphasis on phonics than Open Court or Success for All. Only new teachers will get two days of Open Court training.

All top instructional officials who selected Open Court in 1998 have departed.

Although officials at school headquarters won't talk about it publicly, privately they have discussed concerns about the future of the Open Court approach.

The system's Office of Reading, established two years ago as part of the Reading by 9 initiative, has been disbanded. Its director, C. Thomas Bowmann, has been given another assignment.

"I hear much concern" that official commitment is on the wane, said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which financially supports one of the phonics programs known as Direct Instruction.

But Russo said there is no truth to "rumors" that phonics is on the skids. "Our commitment is very, very strong, it's board policy, and the board hasn't discussed changing the policy."

`Not neglecting phonics'

Russo said she recently discussed next year's reading adoption with Open Court representatives, "and it never came up about phasing them out."

Jones said that "phonics is imbedded in everything we do, and it's imbedded in our training. We're trying to make it deeper and more consistent, and we're not neglecting phonics."

The system's reading coordinator, Steven B. Buettner, recently hired from the state Education Department, "has exactly the same responsibilities Tom [Bowmann] had," said Jones. "Only the title has changed."

After months of sometimes heated discussion in 1998, the school board selected Open Court for beginning reading and a textbook series from Houghton Mifflin Co. for upper elementary grades. The $3.9 million five-year commitment ends next spring.

After reviewing what happened five years ago - the board reversed the recommendation of a textbook selection committee after national reading authorities commissioned by The Sun found Open Court superior to other programs - Jones said she would arrange a "two-tier" selection process for the 2003 adoption.

In the first phase, she said, teams of principals and teachers will "try out" textbooks and other materials submitted by publishers for a month-long period at selected schools.

The second phase will involve national consultants and at least two public hearings. "There needs to be more engagement," said Jones.

Improved scores

Overall, city children have made significant progress on state and national reading tests since the school system adopted Open Court and Houghton Mifflin textbooks.

On the TerraNova, formerly the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, first-graders went from the 37th national percentile during the 1998-1999 school year to the 59th percentile last school year.

Fifth-graders have gone from the 16th percentile to the 40th percentile during the same periods.

Many principals have attributed the consistent gains in large part to the phonics-rich curriculum.

Bonnie Copeland, head of Fund for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit organization that is reforming 39 city schools, praised Open Court but said that it can't be the only approach used in beginning reading.

"I get the impression from some teachers that they think Open Court is the exclusive curriculum, that they can't supplement it," she said.

"If that were so, the city reading programs wouldn't meet state standards."

If Baltimore is to receive federal aid from the newly enacted No Child Left Behind Act, the system will have to select books next year that stress phonics and are based on "scientific research."

Federal education officials haven't endorsed specific programs or strategies, but they've let it be known that Open Court and Direct Instruction qualify.

"Our position is that a district can choose any reading program it wants, but if it doesn't include strong, explicit phonics, it won't pass," said Ronald A. Peiffer, assistant state superintendent.

Sun staff writer Erika Niedowski contributed to this article.

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