Report faults course used in city schools

Studio fails to prepare middle-schoolers for state tests, it says

February 09, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

The future of Studio Course in Baltimore middle schools was thrown into doubt yesterday after the release of a report showing the language arts curriculum is not preparing pupils for the state's standardized tests.

City schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland, who commissioned a review of the curriculum after criticism resulting from a Sun article, issued a statement showing plans to tweak Studio but continue using it. School board Chairman Brian D. Morris, however, said that Studio "will be subject to intense scrutiny" by the school board and Copeland's administration after the Maryland School Assessments next month.

"I'm not going to say that it's a given that it will be renewed for next year," Morris said. He insisted that he and Copeland are not at odds, saying the school board will be taking a more active role in reviewing all curricula. Later, during a conference call with Morris, Copeland said that "no curriculum should be carved in stone."

The report, written by veteran educator Theresa M. Flak, found that teachers and principals are unhappy with Studio and don't believe it has prepared their pupils for next month's state tests. Studio uses teen magazines and de-emphasizes grammar in an attempt to spark children's interest in reading and writing. It was implemented this school year, at a cost of at least $2 million, in response to dismal state test scores in the city's middle schools.

Flak, a former deputy superintendent in Montgomery and Washington counties and a former principal in Baltimore County, led a 23-member panel that included teachers, parents, representatives of a nonprofit educational foundation and two of the administrators responsible for bringing Studio to Baltimore.

The panel did not reach a consensus on the questions Copeland posed to it. Copeland said the report represented only Flak's views and "was not endorsed nor vetted by the review team."

But Flak said the report reflected the panel's findings, even though members disagreed about how to proceed. The majority of the 40-page report summarizes the results of interviews with dozens of teachers and principals as well as classroom visits at 11 of the city's 23 middle schools. Flak said she was surprised by Copeland's decision to proceed with the curriculum, given the concern Copeland expressed when Flak presented her with the report last week.

"It's really going to take an awful lot of work on their part to mitigate some of the mistakes that have been made," Flak said.

The head of Baltimore's Senate delegation, Nathaniel J. McFadden, who called for the discontinuation of Studio after the Sun article in December, said the report reinforces his conclusion. "It was a valiant effort," he said. "They made an attempt to solve a problem, but Studio Course is just not the solution. We need a more traditional approach. ... They should admit that they tried, but it just wasn't successful."

Despite the report's findings, Copeland said she expects to see middle school reading scores go up on next month's state tests. State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said in a statement that Baltimore pupils will have "a huge disadvantage" on the tests because Studio does not teach them what they need to know. In addition, the report concluded:

"There is major work to be done this school year to get the students prepared for the rigor of the Maryland [School] Assessments, which will be given in a few weeks. After the review was completed, the members of the review team were not particularly optimistic about the prospect of improving student achievement given the confusion that remains about how to provide every student with what he or she needs."

The report raised questions about the school board's oversight in the selection of Studio, saying that preparations were under way to implement the curriculum before the school board approved its use last July. Morris said a purchase order for Studio materials was drawn up before the board vote but not sent until after, a practice he called routine.

Studio aims to improve pupils' reading and writing abilities by getting them to read and write more. Pupils write daily in journals on topics of their choice. But the report found that some journal writing "amounts to copying charts from the chalkboard." In addition, it says, "some students have many blank pages in their writer's notebooks, and there appear to be no consequences."

The report quotes a principal as saying, "Anything goes! Everything is accepted by the teachers, and nothing is graded." It also found a logistical problem with pupils picking their own books: "If there is no consistent common text for every teacher to use then there is no consistent (or realistic) approach for a teacher to check a student's accuracy or understanding of the text."

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