Reading First plan fails the test

The Education Beat

Application: Maryland, like many other states, falls short in its first attempt to win federal approval for its approach to reading in the public schools.

April 13, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

SECRETARY of Education Rod Paige traveled to Anne Arundel County several days ago to announce, with great fanfare, that Maryland had passed a crucial No Child Left Behind test: The state's accountability plan under the new federal act had been approved by the bureaucrats in Washington.

What wasn't announced was that a few weeks earlier, Paige's department had rejected Maryland's application for $70 million in federal funds under Reading First, also a part of No Child Left Behind. Backed by a Bush administration commitment of nearly $6 billion over six years, Reading First seeks to apply the latest in scientific research to beginning reading instruction in public schools.

Maryland isn't the first state to feel the sting of rejection from Reading First, which is headed by Baltimorean Christopher J. Doherty. Only 27 states have won approval in the first year of the program, and almost all of them saw their first applications returned to the drawing board.

Under the Reading Excellence Act - Reading First's predecessor in the Clinton administration - states dressed up tired old programs and saw them sail through the federal approval process.

That's no longer the case, as many states, Maryland included, have discovered. Maryland's first effort was thoroughly trounced by the federal reviewers, who told state officials they hadn't "internalized" new scientific research on the teaching of reading.

"It's happening all around the country, to everyone's surprise," said David R. Denton, director of reading at the Southern Regional Education Board, a consortium of Southern and border states of which Maryland is a member. "They [federal officials] want everything backed up by research, and the educators aren't used to thinking that way."

Doherty has been publicly silent about Reading First policies, especially about the rejected application from his home state.

But Denton studied the programs of states that have won early approval. "They tend to be plans that adhere closely to very rigorous federal guidelines," he said. "The states that have been approved say exactly what they're going to do, down to the finer points."

It's no surprise that Reading First has been at the center of the decades-old "reading wars" between those favoring loosely structured approaches to instruction (whole language) and those who insist children need to learn the sounds of the language (phonics) before they comprehend written words. Phonics is the chosen method of the Bush administration, and the president's signature was barely dry on No Child Left Behind when whole language advocates complained Reading First would be rigged.

Doherty denied it. He said no "brand names" are specified in the No Child Left Behind legislation, and states "need not name programs to qualify."

Then came Arkansas, which won approval with a loosely designed primary school tutoring program known as Reading Recovery. It happens that the import from New Zealand (the birthplace of whole language) is anathema to phonics proponents. In one stroke of political genius, Doherty's staff neutralized the complaints of the whole language crowd and mystified the states that still needed approval.

A lot of money is at stake at a time when states need all the federal largess they can get. State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said approval in Maryland would mean 50 schools in eight districts would gain $175,000 each for reading instruction and teacher training.

"We're not upset by the rejection because we know all of the other states were rejected the first time," Grasmick said. "We're going back to the drawing board optimistically."

Careers with better pay, respect drawing minorities

The Southern Regional Education Board issued a report recently that's aptly titled "Spinning Our Wheels." It points to a problem that can be stated simply: In state after state, the percentage of minority teachers is not increasing as quickly as the percentage of minority students, and the gap is widening.

Maryland is one of seven Southern and border states where the teacher work force has become less diverse since 1989, according to the report. While minorities as a proportion of enrollment increased from 40 percent to 46 percent in the 11 years through 2000, the percentage of minority teachers decreased from 23 percent to 21 percent.

One reason for the trend, of course, is that talented black youth are no longer channeled into teaching, social work and the ministry. A vast world of professions is their oyster - and that world is full of professions where pay and respect are higher than those afforded to teachers.

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