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Report faults course used in city schools


The future of Studio Course in Baltimore middle schools was thrown into doubt yesterday after the release of a report showing the language arts curriculum is not preparing pupils for the state's standardized tests.

City schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland, who commissioned a review of the curriculum after criticism resulting from a Sun article, issued a statement showing plans to tweak Studio but continue using it. School board Chairman Brian D. Morris, however, said that Studio "will be subject to intense scrutiny" by the school board and Copeland's administration after the Maryland School Assessments next month.

"I'm not going to say that it's a given that it will be renewed for next year," Morris said. He insisted that he and Copeland are not at odds, saying the school board will be taking a more active role in reviewing all curricula. Later, during a conference call with Morris, Copeland said that "no curriculum should be carved in stone."

The report, written by veteran educator Theresa M. Flak, found that teachers and principals are unhappy with Studio and don't believe it has prepared their pupils for next month's state tests. Studio uses teen magazines and de-emphasizes grammar in an attempt to spark children's interest in reading and writing. It was implemented this school year, at a cost of at least $2 million, in response to dismal state test scores in the city's middle schools.

Flak, a former deputy superintendent in Montgomery and Washington counties and a former principal in Baltimore County, led a 23-member panel that included teachers, parents, representatives of a nonprofit educational foundation and two of the administrators responsible for bringing Studio to Baltimore.

The panel did not reach a consensus on the questions Copeland posed to it. Copeland said the report represented only Flak's views and "was not endorsed nor vetted by the review team."

But Flak said the report reflected the panel's findings, even though members disagreed about how to proceed. The majority of the 40-page report summarizes the results of interviews with dozens of teachers and principals as well as classroom visits at 11 of the city's 23 middle schools. Flak said she was surprised by Copeland's decision to proceed with the curriculum, given the concern Copeland expressed when Flak presented her with the report last week.

"It's really going to take an awful lot of work on their part to mitigate some of the mistakes that have been made," Flak said.

The head of Baltimore's Senate delegation, Nathaniel J. McFadden, who called for the discontinuation of Studio after the Sun article in December, said the report reinforces his conclusion. "It was a valiant effort," he said. "They made an attempt to solve a problem, but Studio Course is just not the solution. We need a more traditional approach. ... They should admit that they tried, but it just wasn't successful."

Despite the report's findings, Copeland said she expects to see middle school reading scores go up on next month's state tests. State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said in a statement that Baltimore pupils will have "a huge disadvantage" on the tests because Studio does not teach them what they need to know. In addition, the report concluded:

"There is major work to be done this school year to get the students prepared for the rigor of the Maryland [School] Assessments, which will be given in a few weeks. After the review was completed, the members of the review team were not particularly optimistic about the prospect of improving student achievement given the confusion that remains about how to provide every student with what he or she needs."

The report raised questions about the school board's oversight in the selection of Studio, saying that preparations were under way to implement the curriculum before the school board approved its use last July. Morris said a purchase order for Studio materials was drawn up before the board vote but not sent until after, a practice he called routine.

Studio aims to improve pupils' reading and writing abilities by getting them to read and write more. Pupils write daily in journals on topics of their choice. But the report found that some journal writing "amounts to copying charts from the chalkboard." In addition, it says, "some students have many blank pages in their writer's notebooks, and there appear to be no consequences."

The report quotes a principal as saying, "Anything goes! Everything is accepted by the teachers, and nothing is graded." It also found a logistical problem with pupils picking their own books: "If there is no consistent common text for every teacher to use then there is no consistent (or realistic) approach for a teacher to check a student's accuracy or understanding of the text."

To be implemented properly, Studio requires every classroom to have a library of 800 to 1,000 books. No classroom visited by panel members met that criterion. The report says teachers "have gone to extraordinary lengths" to find more books for their classrooms by "scouring thrift shops and bargain sales at bookstores," bringing in books and magazines from home, and soliciting donations from their churches and local businesses.

Teachers and principals told the panel they did not have enough magazines for a magazine unit, and they expressed concerns about the magazines they did have. Though CosmoGIRL! was pulled from city schools in December, they said remaining magazines such as Teen People and Teen Vogue do not reflect racial diversity and are "aimed at a teen market with substantial disposable income," not "disadvantaged urban youth."

Other magazines, such as PSM (about PlayStation 2) "are considered to be too commercial, graphic and violent in their content to be appropriate as instructional tools," the report says.

The report says Studio shows promise as "one component of a comprehensive adolescent literacy program," but it "remains an unproven program." The curriculum has a record only in Denver, where test scores have not gone up.

In a statement released last night, John McMillan, the author of the curriculum, said: "We support the ... decision to continue with the Studio Course and look forward to helping them bring rigorous and high quality reading and writing instruction to all middle school students in the Baltimore City Public School System."

Sally Mentor Hay, executive director of Studio Learning, Inc., said in the same statement that the report "underscores just how challenging it is to undertake program improvements in a large urban district," but that the school system has "taken a number of positive steps" since the review panel completed its work.

The statement released by Copeland says the school system will continue its work to align Studio with the standards tested on the state exams. It also says the system has established a committee to review curriculum materials, including magazines, before they are purchased and is purchasing additional materials.

Committee members

The following are the members of a committee commissioned by Baltimore schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland to review the Studio Course middle school language arts curriculum:

Theresa M. Flak, committee chair, lecturer at Towson University's Department of Instructional Leadership and Professional Development; Carolyn C. Blair, a literacy professional developer for the Fund for Educational Excellence; Michael P. Carter, chair of the city school system's Parent and Community Advisory Board; Linda Chinnia, the school system's chief academic officer; John Cox, a state manager assigned to monitor instruction in the city schools; Charles Dugger, a language arts teacher at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School; Harry T. Fogle, head of a team of state managers that monitors city school system departments that affect special education; Jerrelle F. Francois, vice chair of the city school board; Jennifer Green, the school system's director of secondary school instruction; Lynette Harris, principal of Booker T. Washington Middle School; Peggy Jackson-Jobe, the city schools administrator who oversees middle schools; James McPartland, director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools and sociology professor at the Johns Hopkins University; Marjorie Miles, principal of Calverton Middle School; Hope O'Neil, a literacy professional developer with the Fund for Educational Excellence; Bonnie Schmeltz, coordinator of reading and language arts at the Maryland State Department of Education; Melissa Sikorski, a specialist in reading and language arts at the Maryland State Department of Education; Kevin Slayton, a parent, community activist and professional lobbyist; Lynette Sledge, a specialist in reading and language arts at the Maryland State Department of Education; Dixie Stack, director of curriculum for the Maryland State Department of Education; Nicole Stewart, an instructional support teacher at Harlem Park Middle School; Sue Torr, the director of K-12 literacy for the city schools; Patricia Welch, past chair of the city school board; Roxanne M. White, director of Achievement First at the Fund for Educational Excellence.

Source: Baltimore City Public School System

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