The Aegis

Harford County Board of Education approves pilot of the Benchmark Advance program for K-5

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

The Harford County Board of Education has approved a new pilot program in reading for select elementary schools beginning this fall.


The school system first adopted the Lucy Calkins Units of Study program in 2019, and it is currently being used in kindergarten through fifth grade. The reading curriculum, however, has come under fire by some board members and parents in a debate over whether it is the right way to teach students how to read.

“So, we are taking this time as an opportunity to pilot a different reading program in selected elementary schools in order to analyze student achievement and identify the most effective curricular program to support all children’s literacy skills,” said Heather Kutcher, executive director of curriculum, instruction and assessment in a presentation about piloting the new program.


On March 14, the Harford County Public Schools Office of Reading, English Language and Arts received approval from the General Curriculum Committee to begin the formal review process for alternative reading programs, including inviting elementary educators and stakeholders to be involved in the selection process and planning development for review teams using the Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool provided through the Maryland State Department of Education.

“We began that selection meeting as a group and really thought about what is our visions for readers and writers in HCPS,” said curriculum specialist Gideon Twigg. “The other thing we thought about is, what do we believe in? Obviously we knew publishers are going to come in [and] tell you the best things about their program. As a committee, we came up with things we are looking for in a program.”

The committee considered how many school districts, used or are planning to use each listed program. Programs that did not meet expectations on EdReports Alignment and Usability, an independent nonprofit designed to improve K-12 education, were automatically taken off the list of programs to be reviewed, according to Phil Snyder, county schools’ supervisor of accountability.

The ad-hoc committee began the review process for three days to independently preview the programs. Whole team review sessions for each identified program included 90 minutes for the publishers’ presentations, and 90 minutes for committee discussion and analysis. Criteria tools, instructional technology and accessibility components were reviewed and evaluated, and post-presentation discussions with each publisher about technology integration were conducted.

“We had a large selection committee,” Twigg said. “Nearly 50 individuals within our system. I think it’s really important to recognize the teachers who stepped out of their classrooms for those three days, and wrote subplans to be a part of this. Some districts only have 10 people on their selection committee, we had eight to nine people (teachers and educators) per grade level.”

On May 16, the Office of Reading, English Language and Arts returned to the General Curriculum Committee to present the findings of the selection committee, and to seek approval for a pilot of a new elementary reading program during the 2023-24 school year at identified schools.

The following programs were reviewed in depth by the committee:

After initial grade-level ranking, programs from Amplify, American Reading Company, and Imagine Learning were all ranked in the bottom three for each grade level and received the lowest scores from individual committee member scores on the vetting rubric adapted by the Maryland State Department of Education. The selection committee agreed to remove those programs and continued based on the top three scoring programs, including Benchmark Advance, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – Into Reading, and McGraw Hill – Wonders.


Out of 44 committee members, 25 members voted for Benchmark Advance, 17 members voted for Into Reading, and two voted for Wonders, according to Snyder. Benchmark Advance includes close reading, small-group time, and decodable books that allow young readers to focus on specific phonics sounds and the spelling of words.

Magazines included in the program will be sent home with students for at-home reading to allow parents to participate.

“Something that teachers appreciated was the program is aligned with science of reading practices,” Twigg said. “It is sequential and systematic, but it also uses decodable text. Teachers also appreciated that the program is a knowledge-building curriculum. For instance, Unit 1 is life science. What that means is that in every grade level, they are going to have a unit where all the text is centered on life science. So in kindergarten, I build background knowledge and vocabulary, and in first grade, I can build additional vocabulary and knowledge about that topic.”

For a one-year subscription, the program will cost $3,800 per kindergarten and first-grade classroom in selected schools. For a six-year subscription, the program will cost $4,500 per kindergarten and first-grade classroom with 25 students including all teacher materials, and $5,400 per classroom for grades 2-5 with 30 students including all teacher materials. It’s a one-time fee for all six years. Teachers receive all the materials yearly.

“While we have 13 [out of 34] elementary schools that have expressed initial interest in this pilot, we do expect some shifting now that we are further along in identifying a final pilot program recommendation,” Snyder said. “Final costs will depend on the total number of schools, teachers, and students that are involved.”


For a one-year subscription, it will cost an estimate $962,000 to pilot the program in nine elementary schools, and $1.4 million for 13 elementary schools. To pilot the program for six years, it will cost an estimate of $1.2 million for nine elementary schools, and an estimate of $1.7 million for 13 elementary schools.

The Units of Study program costs less than the Benchmark Advance program. For the Units of Study, it costs about $1,200 per teacher; however, it does not have a digital component like Benchmark.

School board member Carol Bruce said that she would have liked to see which 13 elementary schools expressed interest in the program, and if there were any minorities on the committee.

The Morning Sun


Get your morning news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the

“I just want a cross-section of minorities,” Bruce said. “I can’t tell from this. Could you provide it to me? Because I think we need to have representation. If you don’t have it, then we need to help you.”

On the ad-hoc committee, four members are of color, according to Twigg.

Board member Joyce Herold questioned how many years will the program be piloted before enough data is collected to make a decision on introducing to the program to all 34 elementary schools. The program will be piloted between three years to five years, but in three years the county school system could get a sense of whether the program is working, according to Snyder.


Board President Carol Mueller asked if the decodable books that were recently purchased in March will still be used in the pilot of the program. According to Twigg, the Benchmark program can use any decodable book, and the Units of Study decodables can be used in conjunction with the Benchmark Advanced decodables.

The Board of Education unanimously approved the decision to pilot the Benchmark Advanced program.

The school system’s next steps before a final approval, are to identify schools for implementation during the 2023-24 school year; secure a detailed cost proposal from Benchmark Education based on the number of schools, teachers and students; and create a professional development plan.

The next Board of Education meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on June 5.