Commentary on Wisconsin’s Reading Challenges

Alan Borsuk:

Overall, the Read to Lead effort seems like the high water mark in efforts to improve how kids are taught reading in Wisconsin — and the water is much lower now.

What do the chair and the vice-chair think?

Efforts to talk to Walker were not successful.

Evers said, “Clearly, I’m disappointed. . . . We’re certainly not where we want to be.” He said FoRT had turned out not to be “a lynchpin” to improving teaching the way some envisioned, and he agreed that other efforts pushed by the task force had faded.

Overall, Evers said, it has become clearer that “this is a whole society issue, especially in Milwaukee.” He said dealing with traumas that shape so many children’s lives is necessary. ”If there were a magic bullet, we’d all do it,” Evers said.

Yet some cities and states have succeeded in seeing reading scores go up, slowly but surely, over the last couple of decades. And that sixth sentence of the letter from Walker and Evers, about Wisconsin returning to times when it was a leader, remains a wish and not a reality.

Madison has long tolerated disastrous reading results.

A Capitol Conversation.

University of Wisconsin Madison Professor Mark Seidenberg.

The Wisconsin DPI (lead by Tony Evers) has created a number of ways around the Foundations of Reading teacher content knowledge requirement (MTEL). Recent legislative activity on this important issue.

Wisconsin Reading Coalition:

Alan Borsuk wrote a column, The ‘Read to Lead’ plan – six years later, for the July 1 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in which he points out the less-than-hoped-for results of that legislation. What he didn’t address was who or what is behind the disappointing outcomes, and what we should do about it. Should we just abandon the recommendations of Read to Lead, or should we double down to make sure they are implemented as intended? Here are some of his points along with our comments:

The Foundations of Reading Test has not led to rise in statewide reading performance or changed how reading is taught in the classroom. This is not a surprise. There are several factors that make it unlikely that we would see statewide improvement in a short period of time:

  • Practicing teachers were grandfathered, and only new teachers of reading have to take the exam.
  • The exam did not kick in until 2015, so it has really been a factor for less than three years.
    DPI under Tony Evers has been granting emergency licenses to teach for individuals who have failed the FORT: up to 1400 per year according to recent DPI testimony before the legislature’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules They now seek legislative approval of rule PI-34, which further expands exemptions from the FORT. This dilutes the impact that the FORT was intended to have.

  • The legislature has also granted exemptions from the FORT for individuals who use an online-only path to teaching, as well as some out-of-state teachers moving into Wisconsin.
  • Even teachers who have passed the FORT are limited in what they can do for student achievement if they are employed by balanced literacy districts that require them to teach guessing strategies and whole word memorization. There has been no guidance by DPI to encourage districts to move toward more scientifically-based instruction.
  • There is no data collection system in place that would let us see whether students in classrooms led by “FORT-certified” teachers outperform those in other classrooms.
  • Educator preparation programs have not sufficiently aligned their reading curricula with reading science, as evidenced by only 66-68% of their graduates passing the FORT on the first try. All indications are that new teachers of reading continue to have a weak grasp of reading fundamentals. The expansion of exemptions from the FORT requirement gives these programs even less incentive to improve their coursework. DPI has not set standards or strengthened oversight of educator preparation programs to ensure they are teaching the science of reading.

After several years, the statutory requirement to universally screen kindergartners for reading risk factors was dropped.

Actually, schools are still required to screen all student in grades K4 through 2.

  • The legislature dropped the requirement that the assessment tool be universal. Districts may now use the assessment tool of their choice, as long as it measures phonemic awareness and letter sound knowledge.
  • Screening methods used by some districts are most likely not objective enough or sensitive enough to pick up children at risk for reading failure.
  • Most districts do not appear to screen for rapid naming, which is an important early indicator, or oral vocabulary, which becomes a more important indicator as children age.
  • Children identified as at-risk often do not receive appropriate intervention.
  • There is no data collection system in place that would allow DPI to determine whether the type of screener and form of intervention a district uses has any impact on student achievement.

The Read to Lead Development Fund has dwindled, and the Read to Lead Council is largely inactive.

  • From the beginning, this fund was administered politically rather than scientifically. Grants for scientifically-based initiatives were offset by other grants that carried little potential for significant student growth. This became a disincentive for people to serve on the council.
  • The focus on scientifically-based initiatives seemed to fade further once this program was shifted from the Governor’s office to the Department of Children and Families.
  • Funders interested in effecting change in student reading achievement are more likely to choose the recipients of their grants directly rather than turn their money over to a council that lacks clear grant-making guidelines.

​The Wisconsin replication of the Minnesota Reading Corps has gained some traction and had some success.

  • Some Milwaukee schools have seen positive results from Reading Corps tutors, and expansion to other communities is likely.
  • Fidelity to the program is important, and is ensured by continued oversight from Minnesota.
  • The Reading Corps interventions are solid and effective, but there is only so much the Corps can do to remedy the failures of a school or district’s core reading program. The core reading program needs to successfully serve a much higher percentage of the students, leaving a more manageable number for Reading Corps intervention.