Lessons for teachers


IT'S always hard to oppose ideas as popular as motherhood, apple pie or teaching kids to read. But get down to specifics -- how to discipline a child, which recipe makes the best pie, or how to ensure good reading instruction -- and the consensus falls apart.

That was evident last Wednesday at the Maryland State Board of Education's public hearing on proposals to increase the courses in reading instruction required for teacher certification.

Nobody opposes the goal of better reading instruction. How could they, given the alarmingly poor reading levels that have become apparent from the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program?

But there are significant pockets of resistance to the proposal before the board, which would quadruple the number of reading courses required for certification as an elementary school teacher and double the requirements for middle and high school teachers.

Much of the resistance comes from those who train teachers; naturally, they resent being told that their programs could use a tuneup and that the board is willing to spur that process along by imposing new requirements.

The educators offer counter-proposals such as a performance test to assess a teacher's competence in reading instruction.

That's a good idea -- and one already endorsed by state schoolSuperintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. But as Mari A. Pearlman of the Educational Testing Service told the state board this past week, developing a good performance assessment test is a time-consuming process and could take as long as three years.

Moreover, a performance test in itself would be ineffective if teachers and prospective teachers had not had the proper course work, she said.

For better reading instruction -- and more literate schoolchildren -- the state needs both strong course requirements for teachers as well as good ways to assess their knowledge and performance. According to Dr. Pearlman, the course requirements ought to come first.

There were surely strong feelings behind the polite testimony offered at Wednesday's hearing, but the heartening aspect of reading debates in Maryland these days is that they seem to have gotten beyond the rhetorical blasts exchanged between whole-language and phonics camps.

As researchers learn more about the brain, how it learns language and processes the written word, it becomes more difficult to dismiss the importance of learning how letters combine to represent sounds and to form words.

Research is also demonstrating that, while many students will learn to read with or without phonics, a significant percentage of the population will never become proficient readers without a grounding in phonetic principles.

Yet if teachers can be certified with no training in good methods for teaching children to decode written language, the schools that hire them should not be surprised when their students earn disappointing reading scores.

Beyond those all-important scores lies a more fundamental issue. Given the importance of reading to citizens, it is not an exaggeration to describe reading -- and access to appropriate reading instruction -- as a right that is as basic as access to education. After all, without an education it is virtually impossible to become a self-sufficient citizen.

Quarrels and quibbles about reading instruction reverberate far beyond Board of Education meetings or schools of education. Test scores are telling us that something is wrong with reading instruction in many Maryland classrooms. Yes, there are pockets of excellence, but there are also pervasive problems.

Imposing course requirements on teacher training won't solve all these problems. But those courses can be an essential step toward reading instruction that is able to meet the differing needs of Maryland's children.

Sara Engram is a deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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