Panel’s Evaluation Faults Baltimore Rollout of Literacy Curricula

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 21, 2006 3 min read
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Baltimore school officials announced last week that they will scale back the use of a controversial middle school language arts program, after a review panel pointed to flaws in its implementation.

Beginning this spring, the district will search for a more comprehensive core curriculum that is aligned with state standards and includes more explicit lessons on reading comprehension.

That had been the plan all along, according to Bonnie S. Copeland, the chief executive officer of the 87,000-student district. But after the curriculum, called Studio Course, was introduced as the core language arts curriculum in the district’s 23 middle schools last fall, it began to draw criticism from some teachers. Ms. Copeland ordered a review of the curriculum, and the district’s attempts to put it into practice, after local news reports cited complaints that teachers had not been properly trained, and that some students were given inappropriate reading materials.

The review panel of teachers, researchers, and community leaders concluded that while Studio Course adheres to research findings on adolescents’ literacy development, it is not fully aligned with state academic-content standards and has not been executed effectively.

“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 panel says in a report.

Interest in Writing

District officials acknowledge insufficient planning and oversight as the program was rolled out last summer and fall.

“There were missteps in implementation,” Ms. Copeland said in an interview. “But the first four months of implementing any curriculum are tough. You are changing the way teachers teach and acclimating both teachers and students to new materials.”

Ms. Copeland defended the curriculum to the school board last month, saying it helps build fluency and comprehension through “activities in reading and writing that have relevance to the outside world.”

Concerns about the curriculum were raised in December, when critics argued that Studio Course was the wrong choice for Baltimore’s struggling middle schools.(“Baltimore Sticks With Unconventional Reading Program,” Jan. 18, 2006.)

Studio Course is a 90-minute daily program that focuses on extensive reading and writing, using a variety of reading materials. It was designed by Sally Mentor Hay, a former chief academic officer of the Denver school district, where it is also used.

Much of the criticism has centered on the use of popular magazines to engage students in reading and writing, what amounts to a single unit in a curriculum that is hundreds of pages long.

But Baltimore had a delay in getting materials to all the schools, and the district initially failed to provide a list of appropriate magazines. Complaints were raised that some teachers were using outdated or inappropriate periodicals, such as CosmoGirl. Teachers have also contended that they did not receive proper training for using the curriculum before the school year began. The district trained many teachers last summer and offered additional voluntary professional development. Still more training sessions were added this month to address the issue.

Some teachers reported that the program’s focus on writing had increased students’ interest in and motivation to write, and that the reading materials for the program were of high quality and represented a diverse range of topics, according to the review. But the program lacks sufficient formal lessons on grammar and writing conventions and explicit comprehension instructions, the panel concluded.

Next school year, the district will continue using Studio Course to supplement the core literacy program, Ms. Copeland said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Panel’s Evaluation Faults Baltimore Rollout of Literacy Curricula


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