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December 13, 2004

Madison schools distort reading data

U.W. psychologist, Mark Seidenberg, wrote an editorial in Sunday's (12/12/04) edition of the Wisconsin State Journal critical of the way that the district is presenting its reading data. He also points out that although Superintendent Rainwater would like the public to believe "that accepting the Reading First funds would have required him to "eliminate" the district's current reading curriculum - the one used throughout the district. ... The acceptance of Reading First funding has no bearing on the curriculum used in other schools."

Madison schools distort reading data
Mark S. Seidenberg

As a taxpayer who believes in the importance of reading, I'm having trouble understanding why Madison schools Superintendent Art Rainwater turned down $2 million that was supposed to be used to help educationally disadvantaged children in five Madison schools.

The superintendent and Assistant Superintendent Jane Belmore have offered explanations that don't wash. The district accepted funds for the first year of a five- year award under the federal government's Reading First program. After the first year, the program was assessed by an educational consultant hired to evaluate how the funds were being used. The evaluator found that reading programs in the target schools were not adequately documented. She asked for information about "scope and sequence" (educationese for "what will be taught when") and daily instructional activities. The school district in its wisdom decided that rather than comply with these conditions it would give back the money. Why?

Rainwater's explanation of this precipitous decision - echoed in published comments by Belmore and school board member Carol Carstensen - is that accepting the Reading First funds would have required him to "eliminate" the district's current reading curriculum - the one used throughout the district.

These assertions are unequivocally false. The acceptance of Reading First funding has no bearing on the curriculum used in other schools. The evaluator clearly requested changes in the Reading First program at the five schools, not the district as a whole. If the school district administrators were confused about this, they could have requested clarification. If they felt the conditions were unreasonable, they could have appealed.

Rainwater's explanation also emphasized the fact that 80 percent of Madison children score at or above grade level. But the funds were targeted for students who do not score at these levels. Current practices are clearly not working for these children, and the Reading First funds would have supported activities designed to help them.

Madison's reading curriculum undoubtedly works well in many settings. For whatever reasons, many chil dren at the five targeted schools had fallen seriously behind. It is not an indictment of the district to acknowledge that these children might have benefited from additional resources and intervention strategies.

In her column, Belmore also emphasized the 80 percent of the children who are doing well, but she provided additional statistics indicating that test scores are improving at the five target schools. Thus she argued that the best thing is to stick with the current program rather than use the Reading First money.

Belmore has provided a lesson in the selective use of statistics. It's true that third grade reading scores improved at the schools between 1998 and 2004. However, at Hawthorne, scores have been flat (not improving) since 2000; at Glendale, flat since 2001; at Midvale/ Lincoln, flat since 2002; and at Orchard Ridge they have improved since 2002 - bringing them back to slightly higher than where they were in 2001.

In short, these schools are not making steady upward progress, at least as measured by this test.

Belmore's attitude is that the current program is working at these schools and that the percentage of advanced/proficient readers will eventually reach the districtwide success level. But what happens to the children who have reading problems now? The school district seems to be writing them off.

So why did the school district give the money back? Belmore provided a clue when she said that continuing to take part in the program would mean incrementally ceding control over how reading is taught in Madison's schools (Capital Times, Oct 16). In other words, Reading First is a push down the slippery slope toward federal control over public education.

Parents and educators are right to be concerned about the incursion into local school districts via legislation such as "Leave No Child Behind." However, the place to make a stand was not refusing monies that could have been used in many ways to help children in need. Our school administrators placed their politics above their responsibility to educate all of our children.

Seidenberg is a UW-Madison psychology professor.

Posted by Jeff Henriques at December 13, 2004 11:16 AM
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