Schools rush into change

To raise middle school literacy, the city adopts with little preparation an unproved curriculum

December 04, 2005|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

After a dismal performance on state standardized tests this spring, the Baltimore school system decided to overhaul the way it teaches reading and writing in middle schools.

Putting convention aside, officials spent at least $2 million on Studio Course, a curriculum that uses teen magazines, places grammar on the back burner and lets kids write about whatever they want.

But if better test results are what they're after, they have no evidence that Studio will deliver. The program has a track record in only one other city, Denver, where middle schools have seen reading and writing scores stagnate.

"I can't imagine Baltimore would be so ignorant to think it's research-based," said Kay Landon, a sixth-grade teacher in Denver. "They can look at our test scores. Our test scores have not gone up. The kids are getting shortchanged."

The implementation of the curriculum in Baltimore has been marked by some teachers starting the school year with no training, schools struggling to buy the necessary materials, and lesson plans being scrapped and rewritten, a review by The Sun has found.

School system officials, who say Studio is based on the latest reading theory, dismiss criticism that they implemented the curriculum too quickly.

"When the boat is sinking, you don't follow the manual," said Frank DeStefano, the system's deputy chief academic officer. "You fix it."

Studio is being used in all 21 of Baltimore's traditional middle schools, where more than 60 percent of pupils last school year failed the state reading test, plus two alternative schools and one kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school.

Among the magazines the schools are using to engage children: CosmoGIRL!, which has a feature this month called "Five Hot New Kisses," with explicit tips on making out, and Teen People, whose November issue includes the articles "Hot Boy Next Door" and "Flirt Better!" One lesson defines a noun as "stuff" and a verb as "what stuff does."

Maryland state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is calling for an audit of the Studio curriculum in Baltimore to see if it is teaching children what they need to know for the state's standardized tests. She said Maryland's other 23 school systems are all teaching the requisite skills.

Until an audit proves Studio is teaching the state standards, she said, "I don't feel any level of comfort that [the city school system] is going to accelerate the performance of students."

Grasmick also questioned the timing of the school system's decision to use the curriculum: The school board signed off on a middle school reform plan, which included Studio, in July, six weeks before school began. It is standard practice in education, Grasmick said, to approve a new curriculum "a minimum of six months and usually a year" in advance, and to pilot it in a few schools to make sure it works before implementing it in an entire school system.

Peggy Jackson-Jobe, the administrator who oversees middle schools and spent a year planning middle school reforms, said school system officials decided to use Studio last winter but did not bring the matter before the school board until they needed start-up money.

But she and other system officials also said the school board required drastic changes in middle schools after the spring test scores.

"What we were told, I heard very loudly, was that this was an urgent issue and we needed to make some changes, and we needed to make them immediately," the system's chief academic officer, Linda Chinnia, said at a recent school board meeting where board members grilled top administrators about the Studio program.

At that meeting, Jackson-Jobe said of Studio: "I will not sit here and tell you that Studio Course is a panacea. But I will sit here and tell you that Studio Course is the beginning and with some tweaking and some work to it, I believe that we will accomplish our goal and that our students will achieve."

After being tested in a handful of schools, including a few in Montgomery County, Studio was implemented in Denver in 2002, the brainchild of that city school system's new chief academic officer, Sally Mentor Hay. Mentor Hay came to Denver under an unusual arrangement: The school system had outsourced with a think tank, the University of Pittsburgh's Institute for Learning, to fill its No. 2 position.

Mentor Hay, an Institute for Learning fellow, worked in Denver four days a week. Her salary was first covered by private grants, but by 2003, the school system was paying her and covering the cost of her travel between Denver and her California home, according to local news reports.

It was an opportunity for Mentor Hay to roll out a curriculum she had developed with a business partner, John McMillan, who is also affiliated with the Institute for Learning. The institute works with urban school systems around the country to center instruction around nine "Principles of Learning," such as setting clear expectations for students and recognizing small successes.

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