School leaders back phonics Administrators in city recommend textbook series; Panel's advice rejected; $3.8 million will be used to buy materials


Baltimore school administrators recommended last night that the school board buy a strong phonics-based textbook series for beginning readers, rejecting the advice of a 35-member committee that reviewed six textbooks.

School officials did suggest a more mainstream series for later grades -- third through fifth -- that would give less emphasis to phonics and more to literature and comprehension.

The school board is expected to decide next week on the purchase of $3.8 million in textbooks for elementary schools that would be used beginning in September in 123 schools.

The administrators recommended Open Court's Collections for Young Scholars series for kindergarten through second grade, and Houghton Mifflin's Invitations to Literacy series for grades three through five.

Open Court's series is designed to teach children to sound out letters and put the sounds together into words. Such a phonics-based approach to learning was dropped in the mid-1980s, but has grown in favor more recently. School systems are looking at decades of research that points to the importance of teaching sounds and their relationship to letters in the early years.

But city school officials have also expressed concern that the Collections for Young Scholars series, if used exclusively, might not emphasize literature and reading comprehension enough to help improve the scores of Baltimore schools on statewide tests.

The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests measure not just whether children can read, but how well they can comprehend information -- a concern addressed by the school staff's suggestion that the board adopt Houghton Mifflin's series for grades three through five.

"We are feeling comfortable looking at explicit [phonics-based] textbook series in kindergarten through second and then moving to a rich literature-based [program] in third through fifth," said Robert E. Schiller, the city's interim schools chief.

For grades six through eight, the staff recommended McDougal Littell's The Language of Literature series and The Writer's Craft.

Rejected by the school officials were Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, another traditional publisher that was the third-largest seller last year with 11 percent of the education reading market, and Reading Mastery, a 30-year-old program that is scripted for teachers and heavily phonics-oriented.

Macmillan, with Houghton Mifflin, had been endorsed by the panel of city educators in March. A team from Macmillan made a sales pitch to Schiller and his deputies yesterday, and Houghton Mifflin and Open Court representatives had visited last week.

There was no indication last night whether the school board has embraced the staff recommendations. But several members said they were determined to make decisions based on long-standing research about how children learn to read.

Schiller asked the board to consider whether it wanted to adopt two textbook series or a single one for all city elementaries.

School board member Dorothy G. Siegel expressed concerns about children entering third grade in September who are reading far behind their grade level. She said she worries that those students would not get the phonics they need.

During the summer, the school system would give teachers intensive training in using the new textbooks. School officials consider the training as important as the textbook selection in improving reading in a system where the average fifth-grader is reading on a third-grade level.

"Any of the materials will work for you, if they are implemented by knowledgeable teachers," said Searetha Smith, the chief academic officer.

School board members questioned whether teacher training would be more difficult if they chose two different textbook series.

"It does complicate the training," said Clarissa Evans, assistant superintendent for curriculum. "Is it possible to do? Sure it is possible, but it makes it harder to do."

Open Court, a family-owned business until it was sold three years ago, has stressed phonics consistently, even while whole language has been popular.

The sixth most popular reading series last year, with 6 percent of national sales, Open Court is used in suburban and urban districts, including Howard County and Sacramento, Calif.

Pub Date: 5/06/98

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