Stay the course

August 21, 2002

TO UNDERSTAND how profoundly the citywide adoption of a strong phonics curriculum has helped Baltimore schools, one need only revisit the test scores.

Baltimore students have delivered three years of rising scores on standardized reading tests, the most significant progress seen in 30 years. City first-graders scored in the 37th percentile in 1998. This year, they posted scores in the 59th percentile, i.e., a performance better than that of the majority tested nationally. Fifth-grade scores have climbed from the 16th percentile to the 40th percentile in that time.

Many observers credit Baltimore's progress to a $3.9 million, five-year investment in Open Court, a phonics-rich curriculum now used in most city elementaries.

So why are school administrators shopping for a new reading textbook and considering teaching strategies that devote greater time to comprehension than to phonics? Why tinker with something that appears to be working?

The Sun first reported in February that administrators are looking for ways to put more books, not just textbook anthologies, in children's hands. They say that under close analysis, the rising test scores show growing mastery of the mechanics of reading in the early grades and in grades two and up, continued room for improvement on comprehension.

None of this is shocking, and in fact, such results should have been anticipated as a natural consequence of the earthquake of reading reforms introduced as a mandate when the city-state partnership began shaking things up.

Perhaps memories are short: Before Open Court, there was open chaos. Every school was allowed to adopt its own reading curricula, books, standards and teaching strategies. Under this system, students who transferred schools, often due to domestic instability, could encounter three, four and even more unrelated reading programs in a single year, and fall further and further behind.

Now, in an atmosphere of increasing consistency, the attention must be on building a generation of readers. The critical question is not whether literature-based instruction is valid or useful, but when in a child's development to address the comprehension.

Every indicator examined by the The Sun's education reporting team in five years of research has pointed to this: Phonics have to come first. That should remain the district's priority, on paper and in practice. The phonics-based reforms are still young, showing early results, but they need time to reach full yield.

School administrators say they are only trying to improve upon a program that is working; they remain committed unequivocally to phonics in the early grades but want to bolster comprehension and introduce more books to the students' diet as they master fundamentals. They say they can do this without sacrificing teaching time devoted to phonics, and to this they must be held. They also must spurn recidivist bids by whole-language advocates who wish to return the school system to the days of dismal test scores, and resist any temptation to gussy up the basics.

Until Baltimore schools can produce a generation of readers, school officials have no choice but to stay the course.

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