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A Progress Report on Reading: Signs of Promise, and Problems

Ohanian Comment: Just what the world needs: One more throw-away, uninformed column about reading, with Reading First cited as providing expertise In her tenure at the Post, Chenoweth found many opportunities to criticize teachers' work--and offer them advice from Reid Lyon and Chris Doherty, head of Reading First. The last I heard, she was writing press releases for the Achievement Alliance.

By Jay Mathews and Karin Chenoweth

Dear Extra Credit :

One issue that I have been concerned about in this county has been reading. Although a large proportion of the school kids are reading by first grade, there are a number who are not and who need special attention to make sure they get just as good an education.

Is reading instruction now based on phonics, or are the schools still muddling through, counting on the parents of most of the children to have taught the children before classes begin?

Lew Gollub


I have asked Karin Chenoweth, my distinguished predecessor as Montgomery Extra columnist, to answer your excellent question, since she has made a study of reading instruction:

I'm too old to say, "I want to give a shout out to all my peeps," so I'll just say hello and that I hope all my old Homeroom readers miss me as much as I miss them.

There's good news to tell about reading in Montgomery County. Many more third-grade students are meeting state reading standards than their older brothers and sisters did at their age. For example, in 2003, only 57 percent of third-grade students met state reading standards. In 2005, 79 percent did, with some dramatic increases among African Americans and Hispanics, poor students and students with disabilities. (To see these and other statistics, go to http://www.mdreportcard.org .) This progress points to some of the things Montgomery County is doing right. It is spending more time on reading and writing. It has gotten teachers additional training in how to teach reading. And it has upped the sense of urgency to make sure all students learn to read in the early elementary grades.

So that's the good news, and it is quite good indeed. But there's some bad news as well.

The progress is not consistent across all the schools, and as you go up the grade levels, progress slows. At the fifth-grade level there's been some improvement, but not as much as at third grade. In middle school there has been basically no improvement and, depending on the grade and group, even a little decline.

At the high school level, only about 70 percent of students have passed the reading-intensive High School Assessments (HSAs) in English, biology and algebra (although 80 percent of the students passed the Government exam).

It's important to keep in mind that Maryland's standards are not particularly high. If students can't meet them, they are likely to be in big trouble as they try to go to college or enter the workforce.

And, in fact, we know that some are in trouble -- just about one in five Montgomery graduates who takes a college preparatory curriculum and then goes to a college in Maryland will need remediation in English. Higher numbers of kids who meet the basic high school graduation requirements will need remediation.

So, is there something more that can be done to help children learn to read with proficiency?

Four local schools worth watching are the county's "Reading First" schools. The federal Reading First program requires schools to provide reading instruction that is called "scientifically based," meaning it has been proved effective -- and systematic, explicit phonics instruction has been proved effective, particularly for younger children. Those schools, all of them with high concentrations of poor children and children of color -- Highland, Wheaton Woods, Rosemont and Summit Hall -- have shown nice gains in the past two years. The most impressive is Rosemont, which has gone from 38 percent of its third-graders meeting state reading standards in 2003 to 87 percent in 2005. That should trigger a stampede by less successful schools to emulate Rosemont.

But third-grade reading scores mostly reflect decoding, or getting the words off the page. Comprehension, which starts to be reflected in reading scores at fifth grade, is the next part of reading and in some ways the more difficult nut to crack.

Good research does not provide as much guidance on comprehension as on decoding. But common sense dictates that children need a broad base of knowledge to understand textbooks, newspapers and so forth, and that that knowledge needs to be built carefully and systematically.

Here Montgomery County is truly falling short. Its social studies and science curricula are totally separate from its reading curriculum, so that instead of history and science helping readers continuously build knowledge, they are allowed to be fragmentary and unconnected.

The reading program does have a focus on expository reading, but it is disjointed. Kids read a book about bicycles, then one about frogs, and then one about Martin Luther King Jr., without serious thought being given to carefully building the knowledge and vocabulary that would permit all kids to read sophisticated, complex text that assumes a background in the subject.

That incoherence is accelerated in middle and high school, and despite all the talk about a "middle school initiative," the school administration proposes spending only $500,000 for it in its budget. That's not enough to buy a set of textbooks for one grade level, much less provide coherent literacy training for all the middle school teachers.

Without serious attention to improving the entire academic program of the late elementary and secondary grades, we are unlikely to see any real improvements in reading proficiency in the middle schools, graduation rates in the high schools or remediation rates in the colleges.

— Jay Mathews and Karin Chenoweth
Washington Post


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