Plan to Cut Middle School Reading Classes Vetted in Packed Hearing
The school board now must decide whether to move ahead with the plan.
Educators, parents and students have made known their feelings about a Howard County Public School System plan to cut middle school reading classes, and the Board of Education will make a final decision in less than two weeks.
A public hearing was held Thursday in two segments. One at 5 p.m. was added to the agenda to accommodate the expected large crowd of educators, parents and students. The hearing continued at 7:30 p.m. after the school board's dinner break.
Between the two sessions, nearly 30 speakers spoke out againt the proposal that calls for the elimination of standalone reading classes, additional physical education instruction time and the addition of world languages to the sixth-grade curriculum, according to Howard County Education Association President Paul Lemle.
At least 65 HCEA members attended to support those who signed up to speak, Lemle said.
"It was a really good meeting," school board chairwoman Sandra French said Friday. "All of our teachers were so eloquent, articulate and reasoned; I'm just really proud to have them in our system."
While many people have spoken out against the proposed changes, French said board members have received other supportive correspondences.
"We as a board have to make the best decision based upon the state and federal mandates and grants," French said. "How do we best position the children for future success while adhering to the Race to the Top mandates?"
Race to the Top is President Obama's competitive education reform program that included federal money for the states selected to participate.
Eleven states — including Maryland — and the District of Columbia will share in a pot of money to implement reform in public education. Maryland will receive $250 million.
Maryland is also one of more than 40 states to sign on to implement the Common Core State Standards, which ensures continuity of college and career-readiness education from state to state.
It is the imminent implementation of Common Core that makes middle school changes "imperative," according to the school system staff report presented to the school board.
The school system must fully transition to the Maryland Common Core State Curriculum by the 2013-2014 school year, according to the report
Next year, the school system will pilot a new no-fault teacher and principal evaluation system.
In 2013-2014, Howard County schools will participate in the state field-testing of the new Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests that must be fully implemented in 2014-2015.
PARCC will replace the Maryland School Assessments, the state's current standardized tests.
Opponents to the middle school proposal say it is a bad idea to eliminate separate reading classes and attempt to incorporate "disciplinary literacy" into other subjects.
Lemle said his organization is against the proposal as it currently stands but is willing to work with school leaders to create a plan acceptable to more people.
"No one in HCEA's leadership has been approached at any time for advice or assistance with how the proposed changes to the middle school program might work," he said. "And we have offered many times to help."
In addition to being against the elimination of the reading classes, Lemle said he is concerned about some teachers losing negotiated — and vitally important — planning time because they are being told to teach six periods a day instead of five in the proposal.
The contract protects planning time, which is a term and condition of employment, Lemle said.
"I'm very interested in knowing what has changed so that some middle school world language teachers just don't get that term and condition of employment," he said.
Leslie Kornreich, a school board candidate and former Spanish teacher, said she believes it's important to save the integrity of the reading instruction program and is concerned that, a few years down the road, school officials will realize a mistake was made.
But those students affected by the "mistake" will never get those years back, she said.
"I started off my comments by encouraging the board to preserve the standalone reading classes," Kornreich said. "Getting rid of those classes moves us toward a one-size-fits-all education system, and we shouldn't be doing that."
All middle school students, from the struggling readers who need a little extra help to the advanced readers who need to be challenged, benefit from the reading classes as they now exist, Kornreich said.
Kornreich said she believes that changes do have to be made to the middle school program to implement Commore Core requirements and to get world languages into sixth grade — which she favors.
"But this comes down to a major proposal being created without all of the stakeholders having the chance to participate," she said. "This was not properly vetted, for the sweeping changes they are proposing."
Noting all the opposition to the proposal, Kornreich said she would be "stunned and disappointed if the board just went ahead and passed this proposal in its current form."
French said much has to be taken into consideration when the board makes its final decision.
"Each board member will weigh very carefully all of the testimony and documentation during our work session Jan. 19," French said. "We will not make a decision that night; that session will be an investigation for understanding."
The board is scheduled to take action on the proposal at its Jan. 26 meeting.