The Reading Rat Race Series Part 2: The Reading Champion: 11 Lessons for Madison’s Literacy Task Force


As the newly appointed Literacy Task Force begins its quest to unravel why 20 years of efforts to improve reading were mired in a whirlpool of disastrous reading results to determine what went wrong (so that past mistakes are not repeated) there are critical lessons for learning from the Reading Champion. This is critical because Part 1 of this reading series provided the information that was available to a previous task force to improve reading outcomes that were piled sky high and available at no cost; but, obviously, they were not viewed as lessons to be learned to promote success. Worse yet, there were a number of districts with successful reading turnarounds to copy from (available at no cost); but no lessons were learned.

Lesson #1:
Learn from successful reading outcomes of other schools, districts and states; past failure to do so is probably the biggest mistake that has to be learned.

One such example of success involved not just a district but the entire state. However, improvement may be applauded, but only because the rest of the nation did not do as well in comparison. Although Madison has been crowned as having the largest achievement gap in the U.S., CT had that distinction (and still is at the top) as a State because of the significant disparities in scores of minorities as will be seen in the results to follow. It’s also an example of how the use of average or total scores hide lots of shameful disparities until disaggregated.

Since 1992, Connecticut has had the highest reading achievement scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading exam and it is the most improved state in reading scores. As a result of being “crowned the reading champion,” the National Education Goals Panel commissioned a study to determine what Connecticut was doing right that could account for its success. The report, Exploring High and Improving Reading Achievement in Connecticut, looked at a variety of statewide factors.

Before getting to the findings of the study, just how well did Connecticut perform on the 1998 assessment? In grade 4, it had the highest average score for public school students with 46% scoring at or above proficiency. However, in spite of the constant improvement, only 55% of Whites, 17% of Hispanics, and 13% of Blacks achieved at or above proficiency. In Connecticut’s major cities, only 21% achieved at the proficiency level or above (compared with 25% nationally) which means that 79% scored at the basic level or below. Rural towns did much better with students scoring 57% at or above proficiency. What is also significant is that grade 4 scores improved while national scores stayed rather stable.

In grade 8, 42% scored at or above proficiency with 50% of Whites, 16% of Hispanics, and 10% of Blacks scoring at that level; the scores were lower than those in 4th grade. In the major cities, only 20% scored at proficiency or above (compared with 29% nationally), and in the rural towns 50% scored at that level.

Related: Inside Education Column: Madison’s Literacy Task Force: Reading Renaissance or Recycling?