Joint Education Committee Discusses Read to Lead, Educator Effectiveness Program, Gets Off Track with School Accountability and NCLB Waiver Arguments

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The Senate and Assembly Committees on Education held a joint hearing on Wednesday wherein they discussed the funding, design, and implementation of a program that would improve reading skills in Wisconsin’s public schools. The Read to Lead program took another step toward reality as the state’s efforts to reform K-12 education continue. Elements related to improving teacher performance through accountability in the Educator Effectiveness program were also discussed in relation to literacy in the classroom.

Read to Lead will enhance reading standards at an early age in the Badger State. It will set guidelines for stronger teacher training in literacy standards, early screening tests for Kindergarten students to identify children that need help, and intervention programs to get pupils that need help the most a step up. It is based off of a similar program in Florida that emphasized reading by third grade and has helped spur significant improvements in the state.

Legislators discussed and heard testimony over several aspects of the proposed reforms. This included items such as the quality and type of tests used to gauge teacher readiness, the application of student exams, the rejection of a program that would retain students who can’t read proficiently by third grade, and the measurement of student growth vs. overall outcomes.

Teachers and researchers alike also came out to testify in favor of stronger reading reforms in the state. Though the implementation of a proper testing system to gauge student achievement as well as teacher competency amongst higher literacy standards came into question, there was a near consensus that the program would benefit students and teachers despite the hard work and stronger licensing requirements. Testimony focused on using Massachusetts’s example – where the state pioneered effective testing to measure progress – to ensure that all parties are accurately evaluated.

A large contingent of testimony also revolved around dyslexic students and how the Read to Lead program can benefit them. Additional intervention – especially in an era where predictive testing can identify problems earlier than ever before – is being hailed as a breakthrough for these students into the future.

However, this debate wasn’t just limited to the Read to Lead program and the elements of the educator effectiveness system contained within, despite the plans for the legislative hearing. The committee hearing had originally been intended to discuss the educational reforms as written in one larger overarching bill. Prior to introduction, this legislation was changed to introduce each reform separately. Though Wednesday’s discussion was slated to focus solely on Read to Lead, the complimentary reforms lingered throughout the testimony as the conversation often drifted to other issues. And the discussion was quite acrimonious.

This discussion turned contentious for a moment, as Senator Tim Cullen testified to voice concerns with the upcoming School Accountability program. Cullen (D-Janesville) took the hearing off-track to discuss accountability for students, schools, and teachers outside of the realm of the Read to Lead program. Since the School Accountability program has yet to issue a formal report (and since the School Accountability and Read to Lead programs are now separate pieces of legislation), members of the Joint Education committee had few answers for his questions.

This led to a debate between Cullen and co-chair Rep. Steve Kestell (R-Elkhart). Cullen pushed his problems with accountability further despite the working progress of that task force. He tied his concerns to the delays of a bill that would limit school choice in Wisconsin, suggesting that his trust in educational matters had been stricken. As Cullen tried to push stronger regulation, the committee was left to explain that those standards would be included in later legislation that will also tie into the No Child Left Behind waiver application.

The debate reached a peak when Kestell referred to Cullen’s complaints as “disingenuous.” Cullen’s concerns about the school accountability program and its pending legislation were later echoed by committee member Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts (D-Middleton), Rep. Peggy Krusick (D-Milwaukee) and Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee). This devolved into a discussion on voucher schools, the No Child Left Behind waiver, and the still-in-progress school accountability program in the middle of a scheduled hearing on the Read to Lead program.

As of February 15, there had still been no formal report from the school accountability program from the Department of Public Instruction, making legislation on the subject a difficult task at this point. Rolling the accountability program into the Read to Lead legislation package would delay the state’s educational reforms indefinitely into the future. That would have significant consequences for young students across Wisconsin.