A key proposal to reform reading instruction in public schools is in limbo as the state Board of Education weighs opposition from teachers unions and other professional groups and awaits new gubernatorial appointments that could make or break the plan.
Most of the 12 sitting board members say they generally support schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick's efforts to strengthen reading coursework required of Maryland's teachers. But some worry about the burden on teachers, cost to school districts and protests from some colleges.
Whether the plan will get the three-fourths majority needed to approve it next month is uncertain.
"I have a number of questions to which I want answers," said board member Morris Jones, who was instrumental in the move to table the plan last week.
Jones wants to examine some colleges' claims that they now teach the proposed skills in reading, and look for ways the state can exempt teachers who already meet the new standards.
But the state board's failure to act last week has ramifications beyond a one-month delay.
Three board members -- at least two of whom are strong supporters of the plan -- complete their terms Wednesday. With the pending vote a close call, both sides need Gov. Parris N. Glendening to appoint board members who favor their position, and are expected to lobby him accordingly.
Glendening spokesman Ray Feldmann said the governor will not base his selection on any single issue. While he passionately supports any effort to improve reading instruction, Glendening thinks it's inappropriate to take sides on the "nuts and bolts" of Grasmick's proposal, Feldmann said. "The governor believes the board should act on that proposal without any interference from him," he said. "That's the role of the [state] school board."
But Grasmick said yesterday she hopes Glendening will hold off on two of the appointments until after the July 28-29 board meeting (one new appointment, the student board member, has been made). Grasmick said it would be imprudent to force new members to quickly absorb the complex material that their colleagues have been reviewing since December.
With at least two proponents of her plan leaving the board, appointments by next month's meeting could only favor the Maryland State Teachers Association, which opposes Grasmick's proposal and has endorsed Glendening for re-election.
The plan leaves little room for compromise. Because it involves regulatory changes -- changes in courses that teachers must take to become certified -- any substantial alterations would require scrapping it and starting over with a formal process of presentations and hearings that would take three or four months.
That would scuttle Grasmick's efforts to start phasing in the new coursework in colleges this fall. "I consider it urgent that we not lose another year," she said.
The sweeping proposal aims to improve reading achievement in a state where nearly two-thirds of third-graders don't meet the state's satisfactory standard in reading and 45 percent of fourth-graders couldn't do basic grade-level work in reading on a national test in 1994. Many experts point to the poor training of teachers as a major cause of reading failure.
Grasmick proposed quadrupling the number of reading courses required for teachers to be certified for elementary school, from one course to four (though some colleges require more) and doubling the number for middle and high school certification, from one course to two.
Such requirements would not only force changes in teacher education programs in Maryland colleges, but also affect the 47,000 working teachers as they renew their certificates.
While many teachers, school officials, parents and some college representatives have championed the proposal, opposition has come from several college deans, the state teachers union and other groups. Some critics say the state should not prescribe courses but should give a performance examination, let colleges design the curriculum and hold them accountable for graduates. Opponents also charge the new courses would restrict academic freedom, add to the cost of becoming a teacher and lead to a flurry of requirements in other subjects.
The opposition became especially influential when the state's Professional Standards and Teacher Education Board, an obscure panel that votes on teacher training issues, rejected the proposal last month. That action forced the need for a three-fourths majority of the state board to pass the plan. A majority of the standards board's members are nominated by the teachers unions and college educators associations.
In interviews, most state board members vowed to approve a plan to strengthen reading training.
"The proposal is so much the right thing to do that I find it extremely difficult to believe that potential appointees would vote against it," said Raymond V. "Buzz" Bartlett. " We need to get the schools of higher education moving. There's a demand for improving the quality of the product and they haven't been responding. Even if the vote goes against it, they should do it anyway."
Board Vice President Edward Andrews, who trains teachers and principals at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the state should aggressively work to develop a performance exam as California has done, but in the meantime require more rigorous coursework.
"There's a problem with student achievement and we have to fix it," he said. "The best proposal we have, in fact the only proposal we have, is Nancy's." If the proposal fails next month, Andrews said, "I, as one board member, would put one right back on the table."
Board member Walter Sondheim said the differences between the two camps are largely procedural -- both agree that teachers need better training; they just disagree on how to get there.
"The public quite properly demands that something should be done about the abysmal situation in reading," Sondheim said.
Along with Morris Jones, some of the strongest reservations appear to come from board members John Wisthoff and Adrienne L. Ottaviani.
Wisthoff said he is leaning against the proposal, largely because he thinks 12 credit hours -- or four courses -- is too much to demand for one subject. "That's 9 percent of the undergraduate curriculum," he said. "We need to talk about whether we could cover those topics in less than 12 hours."
Ottaviani said she's leaning in favor of the proposal, but only if she gets satisfactory answers from local school boards about how this will affect their plans and budgets. New coursework for teachers is usually paid for by teachers themselves or school districts, or a combination of the two.
"My concern is that we make sure the solution is not going to create more problems down the road. We have to take time to work out the concerns of the people who have to implement it."
Pub Date: 6/30/98