Better late than never. Anne Arundel County’s public school system is trying again to embrace the science of reading instruction, finally letting go of a teaching method that has been rejected by literacy researchers, 22 other school districts in Maryland and most U.S. states.
The Anne Arundel school board approved a $19.5 million, six-year contract on Wednesday for a curriculum that will shift the way elementary school students are taught to an approach based on what is known about how children’s brains learn to read.
Each elementary school will use the new curriculum starting next school year.
“This is something that is very near and dear to my heart,” Superintendent Mark Bedell said. “I understand what happens when we don’t get it right.”
As an elementary school teacher, he said, he was guilty of using curriculum that wasn’t working for students.
The school system is switching to Amplify Core Knowledge Language Arts, a curriculum with positive ratings from EdReports, a nonprofit that reviews instructional materials. The curriculum gets high marks in phonological awareness and phonics, which are cornerstones of the science of reading, along with comprehension, vocabulary and knowledge of the world.
The science of reading, the research-backed instruction method, has become a movement across the nation. It recently found its way to Maryland, a state that once ranked second in the country for fourth grade reading scores, but now finds itself at No. 40.
Maryland public school students have been learning how to read the wrong way for decades. Teachers were using practices that taught kids how to guess at words instead of sounding them out. Last year, the Maryland State Department of Education encouraged local school systems to teach reading based on science by handing out a bribe: $53 million in federal pandemic relief money to retrain teachers and purchase curriculum aligned with the science of reading. All but Anne Arundel and Harford counties received grant money for it.
The state first turned down Anne Arundel’s application for the funds because it deemed the instructional materials not clearly aligned with research. Parents also disagreed with the way reading was taught in the district, using the balanced literacy approach, the practice known to encourage word-guessing. And students were only given intensive instruction on letters and sounds if they were falling behind.
Bedell said that having science of reading instruction was something the school board “was on me about” when he was hired. They were disappointed that Anne Arundel was denied grant money, so joining the other districts was “an absolutely no-brainer,” Bedell said.
On Tuesday, Bedell called in all the executive leadership in the school system and the staff responsible for carrying out the literacy plan. Together they watched a film called “The Right to Read,” and “there was a charge made to the team that we were going to make sure that we took this seriously.”
He said the adoption of the new curriculum will be a “huge lift” and will require teachers to be retrained. It’s important that everyone in the executive team of administrators understood the change, he added, even if their jobs didn’t involve literacy instruction.
Bedell also said that he believes the change will mean more students will read better and be able to take more rigorous classes.
“There will be a commitment that we will fully embrace it,” he said. “It is absolutely for real.”