Discussing the "Schools That Work" series (Balt Sun - 6/1/2000)
- Wednesday's chat wrap
JHU research scientist Geoffrey D. Borman and The Sun's Howard Libit discussed
the "Schools That Work" series.
Geoffrey Borman and The Sun's Howard Libit
About Geoffrey Borman
Geoffrey D. Borman (left) has been an associate research scientist at the Johns
Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools since 1997. His
primary responsibilities include quantitative analysis of outcome data,
qualitative analysis of classroom and school processes, and technical and
organizational leadership for projects funded through the Center for Research on
Educaion and Students Placed at Risk and the Center for Research on Education,
Diversity and Excellence. He has done major studies on federal Title I projects
and the impact of summer school on elementary school students. Borman earned his
doctoral degree from the University of Chicago in 1997.
About Howard Libit
Howard Libit has been writing about education for The Baltimore Sun for almost
six years. Since 1997, he's been working on the newspaper's Reading by 9
campaign, a five-year effort to spotlight low reading scores in Maryland to
solutions to the crisis. He spent the 1998-99 school year following a group of
first-graders as they learned how to read, producing a series called "Cracking
the Code." Libit is currently The Sun's state education reporter and is the
author of the current series, "Schools That Work."
SunSpot: Please welcome Geoffrey D. Borman and Sun reporter Howard Libit.
Reader, Baltimore, Md.:
It appears you discovered that phonics is a superior teaching method to "whole
language." Why do you think some schools continue to use this failed method when
it obviously is inferior to phonics?
I think phonics has been coming back into more and more classrooms across
Maryland. I think my visits to these schools found teachers who are committed to
using that method. I think that when we began Reading by 9 three years ago, we
found much more whole language. The situation has definitely improved.
This seems to be a movement nationally as well. National assessment of education
progress scores, which is considered the nation's report card, showed that some
of the lowest reading scores were in the state of California. Interestingly
enough, California has been a state that has focused almost exclusively on the
whole language approach in recent years. However with the news of the low
scores, there has been a movement in California recently to go toward the
Harry J. Lipkin, Rehovot, Israel:
I have been following Reading by 9 from Israel since it began and find it
fascinating as well as useful in spreading the word around to the politicians
who control education budgets. Unfortunately the Ministry of Education here is
controlled by supporters of Whole Language.
But a local educator, Nira Altalef has created a system for teaching reading
which combines the best features of both whole language and phonics. Since
neither side in the reading war is ready to admit that the other side has merit,
her LITAF system gets flak from all sides, even though it succeeds in the field
and has spread by grass roots communication between teachers and principals in
different schools. In twenty years it has spread from two schools in culturally
disadvantaged neighborhoods in South tel Aviv to 250 schools in very diverse
neighborhoods all over Israel, including Arab- Israeli schools where the
language of instruction is Arabic.
It spreads because it works, and the people who use it and need it, principals
and teachers, like it and want it.
But the Establishment in the Ministry still has its own whole language line and
refuses to pay any attention to results in the field. This hurts of course in
questions of budget.
Can you give any advice on how to call clear evidence for schools that work to
There have been parents in local school systems who have fought similar battles.
Their most successful tools seem to involve test scores and research. They never
gave up talking to principals, teachers, administrators, and other parents.
Eventually they wore everybody down.
Good quality research does speak volumes. The example of a recent study in
Tennessee regarding reductions in class sizes has sparked billions of dollars
nationally to reduce class sizes across America. This policy was all due to the
strength and quality of the study.
Maureen Kavanagh, Columbia, Md.:
I noticed that some schools were excluded from the analysis because they had not
been open long enough. What was the minimum number of years that you required
for inclusion in the study?
For one of our important outcome measures, comprehensive tests of basic skills
scores, we required data for the same students beginning in 1997 and ending in
1999. In this way, we were able to measure the growth in students' learning over
a two-year period. Unfortunately there were several schools that weren't open
during the 1996-1997 school year.
J Stokes, Harwood, Md.:
Mr. Libit, will you be investigating any area high schools on the reading
courses offered to students who do not read on grade level?
That's not a subject I've spent a great deal of time on yet, but I think it's
something that I will want to look into in the fall when school resumes. The
state has recently put more emphasis on high school teachers having training in
teaching reading and I'd like to see the effects of that.
MR, Baltimore, Md.:
Does this series imply that better instructional methods are more important than
I think that both are critical. In some schools that I wrote about you saw
curriculum and the efficient use of time as being key. But in other schools,
having that extra money for more teachers and more tutors has proven to be
critical for them. It's an impossible question to force me to choose which is
more important. If both aren't working, it's unlikely a school will be as
successful as it should be.
I agree with Howard. In fact, one of the schools featured in the series,
Georgetown East, used their money efficiently to reduce class sizes. This
efficient use of funds was a key part of their success.
Christina Tsiotsias, Baltimore, Md.:
In the article "Smaller Classes Deliver Results" it was mentioned that Baltimore
City schools have approximately 22 children per class for the elementary
kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grades. I find that to be false since my child
attends a Baltimore City public school for kindergarten (Gardenville Elementary
School) and has 37 children in his afternoon class; however, the morning
kindergarten only has approx. 26 students. How could that be? Also, why hasn't
the Baltimore City Public School System adjusted to an all day kindergarten?
I obviously don't know the specifics of Gardenville. However, one thing I've run
into in visiting schools is that average class size and teacher-to-student
ratios don't always produce classroom sizes that match. What happens in the
classroom and what's listed in budget books aren't always the same, and usually
that means the actual classes are larger. I admit I don't know very much about
the specifics of the city's all-day kindegarten. It's something to look in to.
One other thing that might be worth mentioning is the concern I've been hearing
from some schools that might not have fared as well as they wanted to in our
analysis. I think that we owed it to our readers and to the parents to print how
all schools did, not just the top 10 or those above average. If we had done
that, just as many parents and schools would have wanted to know where they
Another thing to mention is that although our results are based on three outcome
measures and are based on a school's performance over a three-year period, these
results are not set in stone. Schools do improve over time and outcomes for this
academic year may begin telling a different tale for schools that are on the
rise or may be falling off from their previous performance.
I got a phone call this morning from a principal in the lowest category in the
analysis. He wasn't calling to complain or criticize. He wanted to know more
about the analysis to figure out ways to improve his school for next year. He
agreed that his school should be doing better and wants to see the results of
that the next time around. That was a big part of what we were trying to
Thanks for joining us this afternoon. If you have any further comments or
questions about the series, you can reach reporter Howard Libit at