ANNAPOLIS – A new program designed to change the way reading is taught in schools is pitting some Maryland education professors against the State Board of Education.
These education professors are angered by the initiative, which requires them to tailor their classes to a specific “one-size-fits-all approach” to reading based on research they find questionable.
“There’s a lack of flexibility and a very narrow view of reading. What’s troublesome is that it’s more than general guidelines. It’s this way or the highway,” said Donna Wiseman, associate dean for teacher education at the University of Maryland. “There isn’t a lot of opportunity to have any discussion because the decisions have already been made.”
At issue is a program called Reading First, funded by a $66 million federal grant and part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. To get the funding, states must instruct students using a particular method that relies heavily on phonics – meaning children generally first learn the sounds letters make and then blend them together to form words.
State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick mandated in September that teachers instructed in Maryland be taught the Reading First method.
State officials say Reading First is based on sound research and will help boost Maryland’s stagnant reading scores.
“This is something that seems to have a lot of credence in terms of helping poorer students’ performance. They need an awful lot of direction early on,” said Gertrude Collier, program coordinator. “There is plenty of other evidence that all students can benefit.”
What teachers are taught, including this program, can have wide-reaching impact on what goes on in Maryland classrooms for years.
The program, which will be piloted in a handful of troubled schools beginning next year, is the Maryland Board of Education’s closest move yet toward a statewide curriculum for early elementary school students, said Deputy Superintendent Ronald Peiffer.
“It’s definitely intended to have ramifications much farther than these nine local school systems,” said Collier. “It’s intended to establish models of successful programs. If schools with these kinds of programs are able to show progress, shouldn’t we all be doing this?”
Some school districts, including Garrett County, plan to use the program in all their schools – not just those targeted by the state. And Baltimore County will train 200 of its early elementary school teachers in the program, Collier said.
Eventually all Maryland teachers will need to at least be exposed to the new methods, which is why universities certifying Maryland teachers must revamp courses to make it a central part of their curricula, Peiffer said.
The problem with all of this, some education professors say, is that focusing so heavily on phonics causes some children to stop reading books for meaning, weakening their reading comprehension skills.
“People need to understand that in English we don’t have a regular phonics system. We literally can not decode most words of English,” said Bess Altwerger, who teaches elementary education at Towson University.
“Kids have to show that yes, they can use the letters and the sounds, but use the meaning to think what would make sense there, what would fit in the story and narrow down the possibilities.”
Future teachers should instead be exposed to a range of approaches so they can decide what best fits the needs of individual students, Altwerger said.
“What they’re trying to do is de-professionalize teaching and we refuse to go along with that,” Altwerger said. “Professors of reading see teaching as a profession, you wouldn’t want to go to a doctor who has been trained to just to do a specific procedure.”
Champions of phonics – of which there are many – say that scientifically based research shows this is the way most kids learn best.
“If you teach a ‘code based’ program, kids learn how to use the alphabetic principals to read the words. Most of the kids who are not proficient have a weakness in that area,” said Louisa Moats, an educational consultant hired by the state to help implement the program. “Children who are at risk are the ones who are falling behind.”
But some teacher educators say that scientifically based reading research is anything but.
The studies chosen by a federal government panel to support the research generally compared one group of students, who got some form of reading instruction, to a group that didn’t.
“It leaves out a whole bunch of other research,” UMd’s Wiseman said.
Studies done comparing phonics-based programs to an alternative method called balanced literacy – where children are given books to read as soon as possible – show that balanced literacy can be more effective for some students, Altwerger said.
However, Moats, an expert on this type of research, defended its validity.
“All this is just very basic stuff that anybody would learn the first class they took on research,” Moats said. “A lot of the difficulty we have in this field is there are people who are putting forth ideas and theories who are not trained in research. They don’t respect the methods.”
But Altwerger, who holds a doctorate in education and has conducted research of her own, said: “My litmus test for whether a child can read is putting an interesting, well-written book in their hands and see if they can make sense of it. Anything other than that is not a valid indicator.”
Despite such concerns, the program, including the changes to university curricula, will proceed as planned.
“They’re definitely going to need to revise their courses,” Collier said, “It’s not negotiable.”