First, success in reaching proficiency in reading is shockingly low among students from low-income homes and those who are black or Hispanic. The Wisconsin gap between white kids and black kids has often been measured as the worst in the United States.
Only 13% of black fourth through eighth graders in Wisconsin were rated as proficient or better in reading in 2019. For Milwaukee, it was 10%. Same for Madison.
Second, this has not changed for at least two decades. I’ve gone over results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress going back to the 1990s. Same story, every time: Wisconsin at the bottom.
Despite some (but too few) very good early childhood programs, many thousands of children each year walk into kindergarten already behind their better-off peers. Many thousands walk out of third grade not really ready for what’s ahead.
Has anything been done to try to make reading outcomes better? Well, sort of.
In 2011 and 2012, a Wisconsin “Read to Lead” task force was created to figure out how to get more kids to proficiency in reading by the end of third grade. The chair was then-Gov. Scott Walker and the vice-chair was then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers. It was a tepid effort and it certainly didn’t lead to improving things.
Starting around then, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation launched Milwaukee Succeeds, an everyone-at-the-table effort of civic leaders. It made third grade reading a top priority. It moved slowly, backing a few modest, even if good, efforts. Overall, nothing changed.
Even as nothing improved, the reading education establishment in Wisconsin stuck pretty much to doing the same things. Maybe the philosophy is: If it’s not working, don’t try to fix it. There’s been some increase in teaching kids how to sound out letters and words (phonics), but it has hardly been a full and energized effort.
How important is reading? Very.
Consider a fresh voice: I read this past week an article in the New York University Review of Law and Social Change by McKenna Kohlenberg, a Milwaukee area native who is in the home stretch of getting both her law degree and a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy analysis from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
It uses Madison as a case study in what Kohlenberg calls the “illiteracy-to-incarceration pipeline.” She cites research that 70% of adults who are incarcerated and 85% of juveniles who have been involved with the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate.
“Literacy strongly correlates with myriad social and economic outcomes, and children who are not proficient by the fourth grade are much more likely than their proficient peers to face a series of accumulating negative consequences,” Kohlenberg writes.