One in an occasional series about the grades that provide the building blocks of a child's education
Journalists almost never know as much as the people they cover. But one day while watching a frustrated third-grade boy struggle over a reading passage, education reporter and columnist Mike Bowler noticed something the boy's teacher and aide had not: The boy had an obscure reading disability, a failure to distinguish similar-sounding consonants, which affected his academic achievement and his behavior .
Mike Bowler and Sun newspaper staff members tutored Baltimore area children in reading and wrote about the importance of learning to read by age 9.
(Photos Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
Bowler recognized the problem because he and several other staff members from the newspaper he worked for at the time, the Baltimore Sun, had immersed themselves in a project called "Reading by 9." For more than four years beginning in 1997, the paper dedicated itself to helping its readers understand how children learn to decode words on a page and emphasized repeatedly that if they didn't do so by age 9, their futures were in jeopardy.
The stories, tutoring by employees of the newspaper and other activities -- including nearly 200 columns written by Bowler -- were a testament to the importance everyone involved in education has been putting on third grade. Research shows that elementary school children who cannot read proficiently by that point are liable to struggle academically for the rest of their school days and lives.
The project, since duplicated at several other newspapers, remains controversial among journalists. Some editors and reporters say newspapers should inform readers, not try to change the world. But many education leaders say everyone has a stake in teaching reading.
"If you don't," said U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings in a recent interview with The Washington Post, "you aren't going to have anybody who can read your newspaper."
These days, everything starts with third grade. It is the first year in which states test students in reading and math under the No Child Left Behind law. Many schools have reorganized to make sure those 8- and 9-year-olds get all the attention they need.
At Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy, a public elementary school in Alexandria, for instance, the 49 third-graders have been reshuffled into three different but fluid reading groups -- upper, middle and lower -- for two hours of language arts each afternoon. Each of the three third-grade teachers -- Stefan Fisher, Rebecca Kelley and Sandy Sandoz -- takes a group, including students they do not teach regularly. This is a sharp departure from one teacher handling different reading groups in a single class, but the results have been good.
Last year, 83 percent of Lyles-Crouch third-graders passed the state reading test, at a school where 31 percent of the families have incomes low enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. The principal, reading expert Patricia Zissios, came from Fairfax County, where the slogan was "Success by 8," an even more ambitious goal than the Sun's "Reading by 9."
One afternoon last week in Fisher's reading group in Room 213, 16 students were jotting down ideas for persuasive essays on whether they should be required to wear their uniforms, which are white tops and dark bottoms.
Fisher chuckled at one student's thought: The school should get rid of uniforms, the boy said, "so you don't get people mixed up."
While most students worked on their essays, Fisher convened in a corner a group of six to take turns reading Roald Dahl's "George's Marvelous Medicine."
"If you have your journal, and you don't understand something, then it's time to write that down," Fisher said. He looked at the page before them and pretended ignorance to nudge them along. "Because I have to tell you I don't understand what 'thrush' means," he said.
There is no national test result figure for third-grade reading progress because each state sets its own standards.
But Virginia and Maryland have data that show their schools are doing well. The portion of Maryland third-graders who scored proficient or advanced on the Maryland School Assessment reading test went from 58.1 percent in 2003 to 71 percent in 2004. The portion of third-graders who scored proficient or advanced on Virginia's Standards of Learning English test was 72 percent in 2003 and 71 percent in 2004.
Eight years ago, when Times Mirror Co. Chairman Mark Willes asked the Sun's then-Executive Editor John S. Carroll to come up with a project that would have a positive effect on society, passing rates on state reading tests were often lower, and such cities as Baltimore, where the newspaper is based, were in terrible shape.
Carroll, now editor of the Los Angeles Times, said his wife, Lee, then was working with a foundation trying to improve the city's schools. He said she came home with "astounding anecdotes," such as one about a Baltimore elementary school where "not a single third-grader . . . could read at grade level."
So Carroll decided the Sun's project would be Reading by 9. "A problem with newspapers' coverage of education is that there are so many issues -- quality of instruction, physical safety, busing, union controversies, etc.," he said. "If you try to cover them all, you'll have no impact. Whether kids are reading by third grade is like a vital sign of a school system -- is the patient breathing?"
At first, Bowler was not impressed with the idea. He said he thought "we would never sustain interest in the topic, and it would bore . . . me."
But he began to think of how important and exciting third grade had been for him when he plowed through books recommended by an 11-year-old friend in Helena, Mont. Along with Howard Libit, Robert Benjamin and other newspaper colleagues, he dove into the research and began looking for good reading programs, gaining an appreciation of the power of phonics -- the study of letters and the sounds they make.
"In Oakland, Calif., I watched kids learning to read in a school where no English was spoken," he said in his last "Reading by 9" column in 2002. "In the West Texas town of El Paso, I observed children learning to read in three languages simultaneously."
He consulted with such experts as Kathy Volk, now Maryland state coordinator of reading and English language arts. She said by the end of third grade, students "should be able to communicate in writing to express their own ideas -- beyond the word, sentence and paragraph level -- in short essay form."
Now retired from the newspaper, Bowler works for the Institute of Education Sciences, an independent federal body that oversees research and evaluation. Reading scores in Baltimore have not risen as much as he had hoped, he said, but Reading by 9 "did do one thing of which I'm proud: It got reading off the back burner in Maryland."