What the School Board Should Know Before Rejecting “Reading First” Funding

According to John Dewey, the public school system “should want for every child what a good and wise parent wants for his child. Anything less is unlovely and undermines democracy”.
I think that this principle must guide the Madison Board of Education in deciding whether to permit Superintendent Rainwater to reject approximately $2M in federal funding for early reading programs at Hawthorne, Glendale, Orchard Ridge and Midvale/Lincoln Schools. Unless the superintendent can demonstrate that all families in these schools can expect better reading achievement from continuing the current reading curriculum than from adopting the curriculum required by the “Reading First” program, we should continue to participate in the program.
For me, key questions were not answered in the October 14, 2004 memo that the Board received from Mr. Rainwater.

First, why did these five elementary schools qualify for “Reading First” funding? According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the Reading First grants target Wisconsin schools where there is a documented gap of two to four years in reading levels between low-income students, racial/ethnic groups, students with limited English proficiency, Special Education and higher-performing peers. Are these the kinds of gaps that existed in these schools when MMSD sought the extra funds?
Second, why did the Reading First expert, Dr. Howe, require that the schools adopt a different reading curriculum? Did Dr. Howe offer solid reasons for the Madison schools to conclude that changing reading programs would close these achievement gaps? Specifically, what improvements might occur in reading achievement of low-income, racial/ethnic groups, students with limited English proficiency or Special Education students?
Third, why should parents of children in these schools who are significantly behind in reading believe that the district’s program is better than the program proposed by Dr. Howe?
What’s the evidence that keeping on with our current program will be the better alternative for these children?
In his memo Superintendent Rainwater argues that MMSD should refuse to make the proposed changes at the five schools because we are a “successful” district. He states that our reading program is a success because more than 80% of all third graders score at grade level or above (“proficient or advanced”) on the Wisconsin Reading Comprehension Test. Unfortunately, that’s not true for the schools that qualified for Reading First grants. As Rainwater admits, more than 30% of the third graders in these schools fell below “proficient or advanced” scores in recent years. See “Madison Superintendent Declines $2M in Federal Funds Without Consulting the Board” below.
Bottom-line: It’s not logical or responsible to refuse to adopt a different reading curriculum at five especially challenged schools because reading scores are better in the aggregate in the district. What matters is the gaps in achievement within these schools.
Since 1998, a major priority of the Board of Education has been that all children read at grade level by the end of third grade. Until the superintendent provides more complete information to answer my basic questions, I am inclined to think that the Reading First funds might be another step in the direction of achieving that goal.
Ruth Robarts,
Member, Madison Board of Education