By next school year, all Maryland schools will be required to teach kids to read in a way that’s backed by research. Maryland’s scores on a national reading test are falling faster than any other state’s. But one superintendent sees no reason to change.

Sean Bulson, the superintendent of Harford County Public Schools, insisted in a recent school board meeting that the county’s teachers were using the science of reading, an instruction method supported by brain science. That’s despite the fact that the county’s literacy curriculum encourages discredited methods of teaching reading.

Bulson said at the meeting last month that he hasn’t received guidance from the State Department of Education on how incorporating the science of reading should look.

“We continue to maintain that we have the science of reading very well integrated throughout the instruction, which helped contribute to the fact that, again, that Harford County had the second-highest reading growth in the state of Maryland last year in elementary,” he said.

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The state is deploying literacy experts this spring to evaluate instruction in all Maryland elementary schools. Until then, Harford will stick with its curriculum.

Literacy declined statewide

Harford County Public Schools uses Units of Study, known for encouraging students to guess words using context clues over sounding them out. That school of thought, called balanced literacy, was prevalent in Maryland schools for decades.

A recent report by Maryland READS, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing literacy in the state, emphasized that Maryland had the fastest decline in reading scores among all 50 states.

The scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, were once above the national average. But, as the nonprofit points out, Maryland is now 40th in the nation.

It’s worth noting that the start of Maryland’s decline was around the same time the state was dinged for excluding high numbers of students with disabilities from the national reading test, resulting in inflated scores. Maryland’s struggle with literacy may have started earlier even though it became visible only in the last decade.

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Maryland’s interim state superintendent, Carey Wright, has championed the shift to the science of reading, an approach that embraces phonological awareness (the way letters sound), phonics, comprehension, vocabulary and knowledge of the world. She’s known for leading Mississippi through the fastest growth in reading proficiency in the nation.

Maryland READS, for which Wright used to serve on the board of directors, recommends a seven-point plan to fix reading education in the state that includes improving core instruction “by giving our existing teachers consistent, comprehensive, and job-embedded professional learning opportunities coupled with high-quality research-based instructional materials.”

A spokesperson for the Maryland State Department of Education said they would not comment on Harford’s reading curriculum. However, Wright noted at a Jan. 23 meeting that she is “curriculum agnostic” but school systems should pick curriculum materials that are high quality and match Maryland’s standards.

‘A rotten fence post’

Harford was one of two Maryland school districts that lost out on millions in grant money from a state-run science of reading initiative in 2022 because it did not demonstrate how it is shifting away from balanced literacy. At the time, school district officials said teachers’ professional development includes tenets of the science of reading, that they teach 40 minutes of phonics a day and that district officials tell their teachers not to use cueing, the word-guessing strategy. It’s still discouraged today, according to a school system spokesperson.

But Harford school board members spoke of their dissatisfaction with the curriculum as they discussed approving a reading intervention training program at a Feb. 26 meeting. Board member Terri Kocher said the system needs to stop using Units of Study. Melissa Hahn, vice president of the board, called the intervention a Band-Aid and questioned whether Units of Study would keep it in compliance with the state.

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“Although we have many teachers certified in this intervention program, we still need more because the reading programs that we are using … do not use the science of reading to teach our children how to read and to use phonics,” she said.

Bulson noted that Harford’s reading scores have been improving on the state test and place the district among the top 10 in the state. However, the students who were in kindergarten when Units of Study was implemented will not take the state test until next school year.

The school system started piloting a science of reading curriculum this year, Benchmark Advance, in 11 of its 33 elementary schools. No end date for the pilot has been given, according to the school system, but the curriculum will at least be used for two years and the contract with Benchmark lasts for six. When students take the state test, the system will see how those schools performed in reading compared to the other 22 schools using Units of Study.

“As of right now, I’m not aware of any additional guidance from the state telling us we have to change anything, but should we get more information from them about any specific changes we’re required to do, we will certainly comply,” Bulson said.

Jacob Bennett, a Harford teacher and county councilman, said Units of Study should be pulled from schools.

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“I think we built a rotten fence post and we’re trying to paint our way around it,” Bennett said. “You can’t just repackage a program and nibble at the edges when the design structure of the Units of Study is fundamentally wrong.”

He taught kindergarten at Havre de Grace Elementary School until the school system introduced Units of Study in 2020. Bennett refused to teach it and left to work at a middle school. Now he’s back in a kindergarten classroom at Old Post Road Elementary School, one of the places piloting Benchmark.

Bennett noted that Harford’s achievement gaps are also an issue. Although 59% of third graders are proficient in English overall, only 35% of Black third graders and 14% of third graders with disabilities are proficient. The numbers are similar for fourth grade.

“We’re producing inequitable outcomes,” he said. “I think that is a huge problem in our system. It’s working for some, but which some?”

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