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School board's language arts decision questioned

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 | 6:33 p.m. CST; updated 10:51 p.m. CST, Wednesday, November 10, 2010

COLUMBIA — Superintendent Chris Belcher compared the school district's new language arts materials to a prescription for medication. They were recommended, and if they don't work, the district will try something else.

“Ultimately it’s a management issue,” Belcher said. “We have to allow our teachers to make the decision about the materials they use.”

Belcher on Wednesday said he was standing behind a new language arts curriculum for teaching reading skills in grades K-3 despite evidence that the Board of Education was given erroneous information about its benefits for minority students in one Pennsylvania school district.

After lengthy discussion and public comment, the school board voted on Oct. 11 to approve the textbooks Good Habits, Great Readers by Pearson Publishing to anchor the new curriculum.

Since then, the materials chosen for the district have been purchased for $620,000, and training with the new materials has begun.

Board members suggested at the meeting on Monday to discuss the materials at the board’s work session on Nov. 18. Board President Jan Mees said on Wednesday the agenda was not yet set and she leans toward living with the board’s decision.

“When we had our initial vote, the board had been very well informed about all of the work that was done to select these materials, and these studies were just a small part of what made this a good fit for the district,” she said.

Belcher said his recommendation is not to put the issue on the agenda and to use the materials chosen by the committee.

The board made its decision to use the materials following a presentation by Language Arts Coordinator Janet Tilley at the Oct. 11 meeting. She provided evidence that the materials contributed to an increase in reading achievement for minority students in Bucks County, Pa.; Cook County, Ga.; and Columbia County, Ga.

Board member Ines Segert said this information is not accurate.

Segert cited an academic achievement report for Bucks County provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Education that documented a decline in academic performance of students using the books in question.

According to the report, reading achievement of students decreased in the Neshaminy School District, the only district that implemented the materials in Bucks County.

Academic performance in reading decreased 1.3 percent for students overall and decreased 4.9 percent for black students.

Segert said there is not enough information from school districts in Cook County and Columbia County to determine the effectiveness of the materials for students there.

Board member Michelle Pruitt first noticed the error when she contacted Pearson and found the materials had not been used in those schools until the beginning of the 2009-10 school year.

Calls to Tilley regarding the information were referred to Columbia Public Schools community relations coordinator, Michelle Baumstark.

Some board members stand by the decision to approve the materials.

Outside use of the materials was not part of the rubric used to make the decision, Mees said.

The decision was made using a 60-item rubric, which includes research data and results from experimental studies, but did not include the achievement data of other districts.

Baumstark said this doesn’t change the final results of the studies and that there was growth in achievement. She acknowledged that the information provided about the other schools should have been dated 2009 instead of 2008, but said the research was sound nonetheless.

“It’s just a typo,” Baumstark said. “Our teachers are in support of it. We had a committee that chose those materials.”

Board member Tom Rose spoke at the meeting on Monday and said he wasn't sure if this particular piece of information affected the decision enough to open it back up.

At Monday's meeting, James Whitt and Segert said they were in favor of discussing the decision at the Nov. 18 work session.

Whitt, Segert and Pruitt all voted against the approval of the language arts materials at the Oct. 11 meeting.

Segert said she would like for the decision to go back to the materials’ selection committee and for the issue to be opened back up.

“It’s an issue of trust,” Segert said. “I want to trust that information that comes to the board be double-checked. Parents should be able to trust the decision. We need to ensure this is accurate.”


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