WASHINGTON – James McKusick thinks “education has vastly improved in the last century,” but that’s about the only nice thing the English professor has to say about the public school system.
“Everyone knows the public schools are in a terrible state of crisis. Maryland public schools are better than the national average, but they’re not great,” said McKusick, chairman of the English Department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
He blames the stubborn rate of functional illiteracy in the country on a “laissez-faire attitude” that has left schools underfunded and driven people away from the field of teaching.
“Teaching was a more respected profession then (early in the century) than it is now,” he said. “Maryland is facing a deficit of 11,000 secondary school teachers. We hold up teachers as models, but then we don’t pay them enough.”
As attitudes have changed, so have teaching methods.
Earlier in the century there was an emphasis on teaching phonics, a method that teaches people to read by associating sounds with letters. During the 1960s, phonics was abandoned as educators switched to a more holistic method, McKusick said.
“Like any education fad, it had its problems, but phonics has proven to be effective in basic reading skills,” said McKusick, who added that shifting back to teaching phonics would improve the literacy rate.
State public school officials say they regularly making changes to improve the teaching of reading and writing education.
Ron Peiffer, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the State Board of Education voted in March to require teachers to take more courses in reading instruction, some of which include phonics.
Teachers are also getting more training on how to diagnose learning disabilities, and Gov. Parris Glendening recently proposed creating a better curriculum for below-average students, he said.
“People in the school system are trying to make curriculum that matches the needs of kids,” said Peiffer.
Maryland public school students are now required to take a writing exam before they graduate high school, he said. “It’s a safety net to make sure there’s remediation for kids reading at a low level,” Peiffer said.
The way literature is taught is also changing. Peiffer said students may read a lot in classes, but sometimes the literature is not challenging enough.
Peiffer said there needs to be more advanced reading instruction in schools so there are fewer people with minimal reading skills. The reading curriculum currently tapers off after elementary school, so children do not always learn complex reading skills.
“Those reading skills are tough and we don’t address them enough,” he said. “We’re trying to get a whole array of skills out there.”
Peiffer and McKusick agree in at least one area — that schools are still trying to overcome generations of poverty and racism that have denied some people a sufficient education. Peiffer said the substandard education received by minority students until the 1960s still hinders Maryland’s educational system, he said.
“We still have residual effects of a long period of a separate and unequal system,” he said.