Where's the beef, er, stuff?

December 09, 2005

What were Baltimore school officials thinking when they hastily adopted a middle school reading curriculum that had not been widely tested or researched? They insist that the curriculum, known as Studio Course, is appropriate to help boost the interest and proficiency of students who are below their grade level in reading and writing. But all the system seems to have bought for its potential $2 million investment is some well-deserved criticism. The most critical question - whether students will benefit - is still open.

School officials are certainly trying to address a serious problem. Middle school students, particularly those in traditional middle schools that cover grades five through eight, scored miserably on standardized state tests this year. More than 60 percent were not considered proficient in reading and writing, showing persistent difficulty with comprehension and analysis.

But the school system's quick fix, as reported this week by The Sun's Sara Neufeld, was the adoption of Studio Course, which uses periodicals such as teen magazines to pique interest in reading and encourages students to write whatever they want in journals as a way of stimulating interest in writing. It eventually gets to basics, such as grammar and sentence structure, although indirectly. As a way of being relevant to pre-teens and teens, the curriculum labels nouns as "stuff" and verbs as "what stuff does." How well the program works in a city school district is unclear because it has only been used in Denver, where middle school test scores in reading and writing have remained flat.

Encouraging students who don't read or write well by using contemporary material and unconventional approaches might be worth a try. And some teachers using Studio Course appreciate the combination of scripted lessons and dedicated reading time with individual students. But almost any curriculum will work for a limited number of students. What can't be justified is taking a relatively untested curriculum and imposing it on all 21 traditional middle schools, instead of treating it as an experimental or supplemental course in a few schools.

That's hardly an example of stellar leadership by city school officials. They should be able to set standards for what students should know and provide training for experienced and less-experienced teachers to help students reach them.

No trendy experiment can substitute for a core instructional curriculum that teaches basic language arts.

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