Trust the Science? The Use of Outdated Reading Curricula in Wisconsin Schools

Will Flanders and Matt Levene:

Forward Exam scores show that Wisconsin students are struggling in reading. Currently statewide, only about 36.8% of students scored proficient or higher on the Forward Exam, meaning the majority of students are falling behind. Reading problems cut across all socioeconomic and racial lines. Much attention has been focused on the “Science of Reading,” and the persistence of reading curricula around the state that are not focused on these metrics. The Science of Reading is a ‘back to the basics’ approach that is focused on learning phonics, increasing vocabulary, and sounding out words rather than the context-clue based “guessing” techniques that have become popular in recent decades. Until now, it has not been possible to take a statewide look at what curricula districts are using for reading, and whether this choice has a relationship to student outcomes.

This paper takes advantage of a new dataset available from the Department of Public Instruction that details the curricula used in each district around the state. We correlate reading outcomes on the Forward Exam with some two of the most widely criticized curricula that rely on “Whole Language” techniques—Lucy Calkins and Fountas and Pinnell.

Key takeaways include:

Whole Language techniques are still in wide use. About 44% of schools around Wisconsin under the high school level are still using Lucy Calkins and/or Fountas and Pinnell.

Use of Lucy Calkins is correlated with lower proficiency. Controlling for a number of other factors that are known to affect reading scores, the use of Lucy Calkins is correlated with about a 2.1% decline in ELA proficiency. No relationship was found with Fountas and Pinnell, possibly due to lower usage rates.

Combined, use of either curriculum is correlated with lower proficiency. Controlling for a number of other factors known to affect reading scores, the use of Lucy Calkins or Fountas and Pinnell is correlated with 2.7% lower reading scores.
Policymakers should consider adopting best practices from the Science of Reading. States like Mississippi have seen significant jumps in reading proficiency by moving away from Whole Language methods to science-based methods. The evidence here suggests Wisconsin could benefit from doing the same.

A list of district-level reading curricula is available on WILL’s School Scorecard. Visit to see what is in use in your community.

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