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'Whole language' victims

February 11, 1999

This week the Washington County Commissioners took a closer look at School Superintendent Herman Bartlett Jr.'s proposed $116 million budget, which seeks $6.5 million in new county funds.

In addition to joining his fellow commissioners in pronouncing it $4 million too high, Commissioner Bert Iseminger also objected to plans to hire eight new middle-school reading teachers, saying he'd rather see the system concentrate on elementary students. However, in December the system got evidence that it's county middle school students who need help with reading.

The results of the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program, a measure of student progress in six academic areas, showed that reading is by far the county's worst subject. The problems were most severe among eighth graders. Only 25 percent of those test in May 1998 received a satisfactory score, as opposed to 32.7 percent who hit "satisfactory" in 1997.

The drop in scores was not confined to one school, according to Boyd Michael, director of secondary education for the county. Michael told The Herald-Mail in December that the drop was the result of teaching students to read with the "whole language" method, which, unlike phonics, does not teach students how to break apart and sound out unfamiliar words.

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To correct the problem, new elementary school reading teachers have been added, but Michael said this week that the county must also help those middle-school students who'll soon face a state assessment test as a prerequisite for graduation.

To do that, the system proposes adding reading teachers at the middle-school level and increasing the reading/language arts class time from an hour to an hour-and-a-half.

Of all the successful commissioner candidates, Iseminger was most emphatic about giving the schools what they need to fulfill students' needs. The MSPAP test results show the need and school officials have devised a plan. Now it's time for the commissioners to provide whatever resources they can to help the young victims of the "whole language" program become good readers before it's too late.

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