Wisconsin’s New “Read to Lead” Plan Borrows from Florida’s Literacy Successes

By Christian D’ Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

When it comes to reading in Wisconsin, the Badger State will be looking to Florida once again for guidance.

Governor Scott Walker unveiled his new elementary school literacy plan, one that borrows heavily from a system in Florida that has produced significant educational gains in its decade of implementation. Wisconsin’s “Read to Lead” initiative will emphasize reading in schools across the state, with a particular focus on comprehension skills in the third grade.

Students that fail to meet certain reading standards by the end of third grade won’t be allowed to move on to fourth grade, according to guidelines laid out by Walker’s administration. These standards would include different tests and procedures, hands-on decision making with parents and teachers, and other policy changes that would ensure that students matriculating through elementary school had the necessary reading skills to thrive in a learning environment.

The reason for the impetus on third grade is best summed up by an old adage – By third grade, you are learning to read, after third grade, you are reading to learn.

As we have documented here in the past, Florida’s focus on third-grade literacy and ending social promotion for students without reading skills has been one of the Sunshine State’s many educational reforms that have helped significantly improve public education.

Students in the third grade hit a turning point in their education, shifting from basic visual learning to a process that requires sufficient reading comprehension to digest new information. Students that can’t read with fluency at this point face a significant disadvantage in fourth grade and beyond, and as years peel by, their ability to catch up to their classmates is significantly reduced.

In Florida, this led to significant gains in reading – the state now outperforms Wisconsin in reading concepts on the National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP). In fact, Florida’s Hispanic students alone outscored the Wisconsin state average, a triumph they held over 30 other states – including Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan – in 2009. This is a valuable lesson that can be transferred to the Badger State, where the achievement gap between races has been a constant problem.

However, the Florida model of success was based on a buckshot approach of reform, which included other important policies such as a school-by-school grading system and scholarships for special needs students. Governor Walker is aiming to duplicate that success through the adoption of stricter reading standards and the curbing of social promotion for unprepared students, which is a strong start..