THIRD-GRADERS in Baltimore have slowly improved their reading scores every year since 1996. In Howard County, nearly 60 percent of young students read satisfactorily today, up from 45 percent in 1994. Even some schools that have failed their youngest readers in the past are seeing signs of a turnaround. For instance, student achievement is up 50 percentage points at Glen Burnie Park Elementary, in Anne Arundel County, 36 percentage points at Fullerton Elementary in Baltimore County and 26 percentage points at Freedom District Elementary in Carroll County.
Those are some of the most hopeful signs that Maryland's youngest students are becoming better readers.
Yet education experts doubt that many school districts across Maryland will meet the State Department of Education's year 2000 goal of making satisfactory readers out of 70 percent of students.
At The Sun, we are deeply immersed in Reading by 9, our own community reading improvement plan. Like Maryland educators and parents, Sun staffers who experience firsthand the hard work of teaching struggling readers -- through research, writing and tutoring -- are just beginning to absorb the scope of the problem.
The central goal of the Reading by 9 commitment is to employ The Sun's institutional resources to help more Baltimore-area students become proficient readers by third grade. To grasp the size of that challenge, consider this: When Reading by 9 began in November 1997, less than 40 percent of Maryland third-graders were able to read at grade level.
Identifying the problem is the first step in solving it. And thanks to the statewide reading tests included in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), the State Department of Education has six years of detailed data on reading performance at schools across the state.
Armed with this information, the state has started taking necessary steps, through new education requirements and testing, to improve the caliber of reading teachers in public schools. During 1999, it will expand on those efforts by developing the nation's first voluntary skills test for teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade.
In addition to boosting reading course requirements that aspiring teachers must complete in college, the state educators actively involved in developing those courses to ensure they address the reading deficiencies of Maryland's students.
Those efforts should improve the quality and skills of classroom teachers. But Maryland parents still need clearer yardsticks by which they can measure their children's reading progress.
National educators have criticized Maryland's hazy curriculum standards for reading and other academic subjects. Unfortunately, MSPAP scores are of little help. They were designed to measure school achievement and don't provide parents and teachers vital information about students' reading problems.
To provide individual guidance to families, the State Department of Education plans to design more detailed curriculum content standards by spring. These will outline the reading and other academic skills that students should master at various academic levels.
Struggling schools and school districts also need more help finding and using effective programs to boost reading achievement. Maryland has a strong and fiercely cherished tradition of local control of school curriculum. But that shouldn't stop the state from identifying the best practices for reading instruction -- nationally and within Maryland.
To this end, schools are getting help pinpointing students' reading problems. Using a federal grant, the state is dissecting MSPAP data to determine a school's problem areas so that reading instruction can address specific difficulties, such as reading comprehension, vocabulary and spelling.
Educators alone can't solve Maryland's reading problems. That's why community involvement is central to The Sun's Reading by 9 effort. In 1999, these pages will explore a host of reading improvement initiatives. Among them:
Early childhood education
Research shows that literacy training for the preschool set clearly enhances reading skills. Yet far too few students enter kindergarten with the pre-reading skills required for formal reading instruction.
Among the missing elements: knowledge of letters, sounds, basic vocabulary and the ability to tell simple stories and make rhymes. What's more, studies show that even enrollment in quality day-care programs doesn't guarantee that young children will learn these critical pre-reading skills.
The Glendening administration intends to ask the General Assembly for $3 million to set up demonstration programs at day-care centers and other early childhood programs that provide appropriate developmental learning experiences for preschoolers.
The money is an important part of increasing the number of young children who arrive at school ready to read.
Promoting community literacy
Mounting evidence suggests that a community's ability to read is closely tied to its ability to thrive. A recent UNICEF report found that 1 billion people worldwide are doomed to poverty because they are functionally illiterate. And research shows that a community's literacy rate affects everything from its health statistics to its success at achieving basic human rights.
Maryland has a proud history of generous financial support for its public libraries. Carroll, Howard, Montgomery and Harford counties and Baltimore City all spend more than $30 per resident on public libraries.
Yet this support does not always pay off in high usage. For example, the percentage of Baltimore residents with library cards is among the lowest in the state.
Well-stocked school and public libraries, summer reading programs, story hours and tutoring services all demonstrate the importance of promoting community literacy while helping to inspire a love of reading.
Reading improvement is hard work. Just ask first-graders now struggling with their first books.
Whether it's a student, a newspaper or a school system embarking on reading improvement, community involvement holds the most promise for success.