Read to Lead Acknowledges Wisconsin’s Growing Reading Problems – But Will It Be Enough?

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

On Wednesday, Governor Scott Walker and Superintendent Tony Evers unveiled the state’s plan to boost fading reading scores in Wisconsin’s public schools. The Read to Lead program will increase literacy in young students through a combination of early intervention and a better prepared teaching body.

But will it be enough?

Read to Lead is aimed to better educate students through early literacy screening and stronger professional development amongst teachers. It will emphasize reading at an early age and make it the cornerstone of Wisconsin’s public education.

The program is based off a series of successful reforms in Florida. There, students that couldn’t read proficiently by the end of the third grade were held back, effectively ending social promotion until a child could demonstrate that he or she was able to read well enough to learn other subjects. It fell in line with an old saying – by third grade, you are learning to read; after third grade, you are reading to learn.

In Wisconsin, the responsibility for greater reading standards will be placed firmly on the teachers without the increased threat of grade retention for students and families. The state is betting hard that early screening tests to gauge reading ability and that a comprehensive preparation system for reading teachers will be enough to overcome stagnant literacy growth over the past two decades.

While Wisconsin still ranks in the top half of all states when it comes to elementary school reading, they’ve fallen from 2nd overall to 16th between 1994 and 2010. While the state hasn’t gotten observably worse over this span, they’ve been passed by other states that have made big strides producing educational gains. After nearly two decades with statistically similar NAEP scores, it became clear that action needed to be taken.

Enter Read to Lead, which will provide extra attention in literacy techniques in early childhood. Students from pre-kindergarten to third grade will now focus more on their reading studies. Teachers in these grades will have more strenuous licensing procedures in order to ensure that they better understand how to gauge a child’s progress and incorporate new methods of teaching into their reading process. This includes more comprehensive professional development programs for current teachers and new coursework for potential teachers.

Indeed, the program is aimed at getting to students through their teachers. Read to Lead is a proactive program that is aimed at making all teachers experts in learning – something that some task force members suggested was a problem in Wisconsin’s classrooms. The new system is designed to give educators an answer for every problem that a student has in school, along with the methods to bring children of all reading levels to a point of better understanding. It will strengthen the core of the state’s public school teachers and introduce new techniques to a population of ever-diverse students.

This accountability will course across the state’s other educational task forces as well. The Read to Lead report recommends tying these higher reading standards into a pair of upcoming reforms. The Educator Effectiveness Design Team and the Wisconsin School Accountability Design team have both been encouraged to include reading outcomes to the way that they will grade teachers and schools, respectively. Best practices will include methods devised to help struggling students achieve more when it comes to reading.

However, failing to tie consequences that can reverberate back to a student’s home may represent a missed opportunity. Unlike the Florida model the plan is partially based on, Wisconsin’s literacy efforts don’t tie in social promotion concerns. While the task force discussed the retention of students that cannot read well in third grade at length, the plan was ultimately dismissed.

This takes some responsibility away from parents and children, and could allow for some underprepared pupils to advance through their elementary schools without the necessary reading background to succeed. While teachers will be better equipped than ever before, there is little beyond the current grading system to keep students any more accountable than they were before. A summer-school reading program is mentioned in the report’s findings, but is passively suggested as something that districts “should consider” rather than a requirement.

While parents will be engaged by programs sponsored by Read to Lead, such as Reach Out and Read and other programs targeted to help low-income families, there is little else that put more responsibility in the hands of students and parents.

This is a tricky subject to begin with. How do you engage parents and students when there is little support at home? Read to Lead is betting strongly that better informed teachers and early intervention are the key rather than holding the threat of grade retention over a student’s head. However, what happens when a students has the grades to progress through school but not the reading skills? What happens if parents refuse an optional booster course in summer school? Will this added focus lead more teachers to recommend holding students back a grade that they normally would pass? These are difficult questions – and ones that will have to be answered in Wisconsin’s classrooms in the 2012-2013 school year.

Read to Lead is going all-in on the strength of Wisconsin’s school teachers. If the program follows through with its promises of early intervention for students and unprecedented access to professional reading development for teachers, it will be a major asset for the state’s public schools. However, it will require buy-in from families as well to have a truly significant impact.

Will the program be enough to engage parents and students even without additional schooling for students that fail to grasp the concepts they need to learn in the later grades? Unfortunately, we won’t know for sure for years.