Read to Lead Plan Nears Unveiling Stage, but Changes Could Mar Effectiveness

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Educational Policy Analyst

After months of discussion and debate, Wisconsin’s Read to Lead program is moving closer to a formal unveiling. However, the state’s reading initiative will have some key differences from the Florida model that it is based upon.  Given Florida’s impressive results and just how far ahead their kids are compared to Wisconsin, one must wonder why Wisconsin changed anything?

Several new aspects of reading education are planned for the program’s unveiling and implementation in the coming months. This includes an added onus on teacher readiness – including stronger licensing requirements and greater access to professional development – as well as a screening test for kindergarteners in order to prompt intervention at the earliest stages. However, one major policy regarding social promotion will not be implemented in the Badger State.

Regular visitors to MacIver know about the dramatic improvement in Florida’s educational system.  This slate of Wisconsin reforms was based on Florida’s experience, where early intervention has helped spark a turnaround for young students. One of the biggest components of the Sunshine State’s program was a stipulation that all students must pass a basic reading comprehension test to move on from third to fourth grade. Any student who fails is held back until they can ably demonstrate proficient reading skills – barring parental and teacher appeals. This component has helped reform the state’s educational outcomes to a point where Florida’s Hispanic students alone outscore Wisconsin’s entire student body when it comes to fourth-grade reading skills.

This element won’t be a part of Wisconsin’s reading reform. There is no component for retaining students in third grade based on their inability to demonstrate basic reading skills.

This could be problematic for the Read to Lead reforms. While teachers and administrators will face the challenge of improving reading comprehension through stronger methods, little of this increased burden will be transferred to students and their families. The prospect of repeating a grade is something that got little support from local educators and parents. However, it may be a necessary threat not only to spur students to make a stronger commitment, but to increase the levels of parental involvement as well.

More importantly, removing this stipulation could allow underprepared students to get lost in the later grades. As the saying goes “by third grade you are learning to read. After third grade, you are reading to learn.”

Without parents and educators on board with making reading a top priority for passing, Read to Lead will move on without some of the power that made a similar program a success in Florida. While teachers absolutely play an integral role in a student’s development when it comes to literacy, this consequence could have presented an opportunity to increase parental and community inputs to education in the state. More importantly, it leaves the door open for underprepared students to matriculate to higher grades where they can be fall further behind without proper reading skills.

Despite this drawback, the plan represents a significant step forward for Wisconsin. Shifting a greater focus towards reading will help students in a state where NAEP scores have remained relatively static in recent years.

The new reading metrics will also sync with Common Core of Data standards. This means that the data gleaned from these tests will be comparable across both districts and states throughout America. The Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) can only be compared through districts and offers little in terms of national comparisons.

The added focus on teacher readiness and ability to identify and intervene with struggling students is also encouraging. A kindergarten screener will help schools focus on children with reading problems. Added teacher preparation in the younger grades will play a big role in helping these students. However, many districts have recently cut back on pay raises for professional development, so the participation in these programs will be interesting to track.

It’s a good move for Wisconsin, but will it be enough? Florida’s model proved that turnarounds aren’t impossible, and the Badger State is starting at a higher point than Florida did a decade ago. Still, the threat of grade retention was an honest challenge that not only motivated students and families, but ensured that students matriculating through grade school were prepared for the challenges ahead of them. This led not only to better reading scores, but higher graduation rates down the road.

Maybe Wisconsin won’t need that aspect of the reform. Perhaps it would have been too much of a burden for teachers, parents, and students to carry. Still, including a provision that ends social promotion for kids that can’t grasp basic reading concepts by third grade would have been an impactful statement towards education in Wisconsin. We’ll have to see if Read to Lead can be successful without it.