Maryland school officials yesterday received the first installment of a $66 million federal grant aimed at improving reading instruction with an infusion of phonics.
Eugene Hickok, U.S. undersecretary of education, delivered a $20 million check, much of which will go to training teachers in "scientifically proven" strategies. The six-year program, known as Reading First, "will change the way reading is taught in Maryland," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
It was Maryland's second effort to win the grant. The federal department early last spring firmly rejected the state's first application, saying it lacked substance and was too heavily influenced by "whole language," a loosely structured approach to reading instruction. The federal review panel said Maryland officials hadn't "internalized" scientifically based approaches to teaching.
Grasmick called in national experts on phonics to redraft the state's application. The approved program promises heavy emphasis on phonemic awareness, the ability to focus on the sounds of spoken words, and phonics, learning that letters have sounds and make words.
Reading First schools will provide 90-minute daily blocks of uninterrupted reading instruction in the early grades, and every school will have a reading coach, said Grasmick. She said many of the state's schools already are using these methods and emphasizing phonics, but the "biggest challenge" will be the schools of higher education.
"Higher education is going to have to revise [its teacher] preparation programs," she said. "I'm going to be a bulldog on this." Otherwise, "I wouldn't take the money."
Hickok, a former Pennsylvania secretary of education, announced the grant at the annual meeting of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, a gathering also addressed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The governor embraced the "back to basics" approach of the Bush administration and its education department. Emphasizing phonics in beginning reading "is about science, not about making people feel better," Ehrlich said.
In a brief news conference after the meeting, Hickok said that reading is unlike other disciplines. "We have real good science on what are the best ways to teach reading. We have 25 years of it."
Backed by a $6 billion commitment from the Bush administration, Reading First is part of the No Child Left Behind Act. Most of the Maryland grant will be directed at about 40 schools in nine districts: Allegany, Baltimore, Dorchester, Garrett, Montgomery, Prince George's, Somerset and Worcester counties and Baltimore City.
But Grasmick said millions more will be spent on "professional development" in all 24 districts "so we can translate research into practice."
Maryland's Reading First program also emphasizes fluency -- reading with speed, accuracy and expression --building vocabulary and comprehension, or understanding what is read.
Schools will be required to frequently screen children learning to read so that those falling behind can be identified quickly and given extra help.
Fifty-eight percent of the state's third-graders and 66 percent of its fifth-graders scored at the proficient and advanced levels in the first Maryland School Assessment, administered last March.