Board delays vote on plan to eliminate middle school reading classes

A split vote Thursday delayed the approval of a new schedule and the elimination of traditional reading classes in Howard County middle schools.

With a 4-4 vote Thursday, Jan. 26, the Board of Education failed to come to a consensus on how to implement the state's new "common core" standards – standards that will mean an end to traditional reading classes for middle school students.

"I think the positives outweigh the negatives on this, but it's not having stand alone reading classes ... not having it be a requirement (that I don't like)," said student member Tomi Williams, who voted against the proposal. "It's something I'm very apprehensive about. That's the only thing that concerns me about the proposal."

Under the proposed middle school schedule, presented to the board last year, middle schools would shift from variations on a 45-minute, eight-period day, to a uniform 50-minute, seven-period day. Traditional reading classes would be eliminated, and reading instruction would be infused into content-area classes to conform to new state standards which put intense focus on disciplinary literacy, or reading in the content area. Reading would not be required for at- or above-level readers.

"We are not eliminating reading instruction; we are restructuring reading instruction," Clarissa Evans, executive director of school improvement and curricular programs, told the board.

Even though traditional reading classes would no longer be required for all students, students would still have the option of taking reading classes — courses called "advanced inquiry and innovation modules," all of which include reading, Evans said.

Other board members who voted against the proposal — Allen Dyer, Cindy Vaillancourt and Brian Meshkin — agreed that aligning with the common core standards is the right direction for the school system, but issues like eliminating traditional reading gave them pause.

"Every time I hear a defense of the program, it's a defense of the idea, of change, of disciplinary literacy — none of those things are in the equation that take reading out," Meshkin said.

Dyer and Vaillancourt were concerned about moving forward with the plan without the support of teachers. Despite approval from central office staff and middle school principals, the plan was criticized by middle school teachers.

"Without the support of staff, I think it makes this more problematic," Vaillancourt said. "I can't think of this as supporting the teachers when they're the ones coming to us, very unified, saying there are significant issues they want to see worked out. I want to see it worked out before we approve the plan."

Central office staff had been working with the Howard County Education Association to tweak the proposal that would alter the teachers' schedules. If the board had approved the plan, it would have included a program implementation period for all teachers — an aspect lacking in the original Dec. 8 proposal.

But Paul Lemle, HCEA president, said the union still wants traditional reading classes to remain in the schedule. Furthermore, he said, the board should be protecting class size and teacher equity by properly staffing related arts teachers.

Board members directed central office staff to work further with HCEA on the proposal, and plan on taking up the issue again Feb. 9.

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