On Milwaukee (and Madison’s) Reading Crisis

Alan Borsuk

Jean Maier says she now realizes two of the important qualities needed to make progress in dealing with Milwaukee’s reading crisis:

Humility and tenacity.

One piece of good news is that she has seen them in action in places such as Gwen T. Jackson School, 2121 W. Hadley St., a Milwaukee public school where improvement in reading achievement is an urgent need. (How urgent? Scores improved this year so only 84.7% of students were rated below proficient in reading in state test results released last week.)

Another — and I hope broader — piece of good news is that the carefully constructed (which can be read as “slow aborning”) efforts of Milwaukee Succeeds are entering the action stage. In recent weeks, I visited three pilot programs associated with the everyone-at-the-table campaign by civic leaders to improve the lot of children in the city.

I liked what I saw, in terms of the projects. I was sobered by the depth of the problem, both when I watched kids struggle with reading basics and when I looked at the new wave of test results. But I did feel like a lot of care, commitment and intelligence is going into finding more effective ways of helping kids with reading. That is one of several major focal points for the Milwaukee Succeeds effort.

Two of the Milwaukee Succeeds pilots I visited focused on tutoring. There are a lot of people who want to help kids improve their reading, including volunteers ranging from college students to retirees. But, frankly, there have been two big problems with tutoring efforts citywide.

One is that they focus too much on kids who are actually doing OK and too little on those who really need help. The Milwaukee Succeeds folks have put together compelling data to show this.

  • Is the issue of having children “learning-ready” being addressed in these locations? Are their physical needs, such as diet, home quality and safety, etc. being addressed? Are their medical needs being addressed? All the tutoring in the world is not going to overcome a growling stomach, or worries about being confronted by a thug or bully on the way home.