School board turns a page City's textbooks are finally chosen after much debate; $3.8 million purchase OK'd; Texts stress phonics in the early grades and literature later


In a move to give beginning readers a strong grounding in the mechanics of the English language, the Baltimore school board voted last night to spend $3.8 million on a phonics-based book series for kindergarten through grade two and a series rich in literature for grades three through five.

The action follows weeks of drama uncharacteristic of a textbook selection, as reading authorities from Baltimore to California weighed in on how best to build this foundation skill for Baltimore's children, who lag badly behind their suburban peers and are on average two grades behind in reading by the time they reach fifth grade.

"If we do a good job K to two, we'll find we'll have readers" -- children who are ready for any materials, said the city's chief academic officer, Searetha Smith. "We really must put these foundation skills in place first."

The plan is to use Open Court's Collections for Young Scholars and Houghton Mifflin's Invitations to Literacy to equip children with two different skills, each needed at a different stage of development.

Open Court's early reading program focuses on the vital prerequisites to reading -- teaching the individual sounds of language; how they correspond to letters and blend together to form words; and giving students lots of opportunities to practice phonics with stories that contain words they can sound out.

Research points to the necessity of these skills and the effectiveness of direct, "explicit" instruction, particularly among poor children who come to school with limited language experiences.

Houghton Mifflin's series, strong in engaging literature and building comprehension, will pick up in third grade, shifting the focus to developing critical thinking skills that have become the state's key educational goal and cornerstone of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

Open Court Publishing Co., owned by McGraw-Hill, has kept a strong phonics orientation since its birth as a family-owned company in the early 1960s and has solid data to show its effectiveness. Houghton Mifflin's series, with its award-winning children's literature, is the largest-selling reading series in the nation, with 21 percent of sales last year.

But this massive purchase does not come without concerns.

Some board members worried that switching textbooks in third grade would make training teachers more difficult and produce rocky transitions.

A key challenge will be how to teach the many children who have not mastered phonics by the end of second grade. Board member Carl Stokes asked about extending Open Court through third or fifth grade, using Houghton Mifflin as a supplement in upper grades or giving schools a choice of when to make the transition.

School officials said they are working on a plan to give intensive phonics lessons to older children who still have trouble sounding out words. That might include teaching some third-graders with Open Court, using Houghton Mifflin's phonics "intervention" program or buying other supplemental books.

But for the general student body, Smith said Houghton Mifflin is the best choice for upper elementary grades because it is better linked to the MSPAP, which stresses interpretation and reasoning and is used to hold schools accountable for student performance. Eighty-eight percent of the city's third-graders did not meet the standard in reading last year.

"We need the strongest intervention possible to align the material with the MSPAP," Smith said.

The textbook selection has engulfed school officials in philosophical debates over reading, how explicit the phonics needs to be and the importance of hard data to support publishers' claims.

In March, a panel of 35 city educators recommended two traditional series rich in literature -- Houghton Mifflin and Macmillan/McGraw-Hill -- for all elementary school grades.

A month later, interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller and his staff changed direction and recommended Open Court for the early grades, stressing the importance of explicit phonics -- a method that directly teaches sounds and letters in isolation and how to blend them to form words.

Houghton Mifflin also teaches phonics and has added more in its 1999 edition being offered to Baltimore. But the phonics is more implicit, researchers say, an approach that often starts with a story, pulls out clusters of letters or words and only then teaches children letter sounds.

For grades six through eight, the board approved books by McDougal Littell, the Language of Literature series and the Writer's Craft. As part of the agreements with the publishers, 3,000 teachers will be trained this summer in the new reading programs.

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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