A bipartisan consensus could be growing on how to teach reading statewide
Alan Borsuk Special to the Journal Sentinel
Published 11:46 a.m. CT Feb. 28, 2023
Editor’s note: With low reading proficiency scores across the state, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin is exploring the causes and consequences of low literacy. This article is part of the By the Book series, which examines reading curriculum, instructional methods and solutions in K-12 education to answer the questions: Why do so many Wisconsin kids struggle to read, and what can be done about it?
MADISON ― Momentum is quickly increasing for the Wisconsin Legislature to move many— if not all — public schools in the state to greater use of reading instruction that is strong on the use of phonics.
Prospects that the action may be bipartisan and draw support from Gov. Tony Evers appear to be rising.
The education committees of the state Assembly and Senate have called a joint hearing for Thursday to hear from two prominent advocates of “science of reading” approaches to teaching literacy. Officials of the state Department of Public Instruction will also present testimony.
While there is no specific proposal to be considered at the hearing, and there will be no vote on what to do, the hearings will be a step toward putting reading into a prominent position in debates about policy and spending on education as the biennial state budget is shaped this spring.
More: What’s in the Capitol forecast for education in Wisconsin this session
Partisan gridlock has prevented legislative action on a range of education issues for the last four years. But urgency around dealing with the weak reading skills of students statewide appears to be increasing.
Even a few weeks ago, it appeared there wasn’t much happening when it came to proposals in the Capitol dealing with reading. But that has changed.
Events promoting the science of reading have been held around the state in recent weeks, and a conference at the Monona Terrace center in Madison on Feb. 8 drew several of the most prominent figures in science of reading advocacy in the U.S., as well as legislators, education leaders and others interested in the issue.
The “science of reading” is largely regarded as a body of neuroscience and cognitive research explaining how the brain learns to read.
Legislator hopes reading proposal will gain bipartisan support
Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, chair of the Assembly education committee, said Monday that he hopes that over the next several weeks agreement can be reached on a reading proposal that will draw support from Evers, a Democrat, as well as Republican legislative leaders.
Kitchens said he met last week with Evers and DPI representatives. “I’m very happy we appear to be approaching something we can agree on,” he said. “We were very much on the same page on this. I didn’t feel that way in the past.”
State Sen. John Jagler, R-Watertown, chair of the Senate education committee, said in a recent interview, “I’m all in on this.”
He said he wants action that is supported widely and not something that will be vetoed by Evers, as has happened with some smaller-scale initiatives in the recent past.
Evers said Tuesday he is discussing lagging reading achievement with Republican lawmakers who control the state budget-writing process. He told reporters it was unlikely he and Republican leaders will agree on the overall level of funding for schools but said there’s broad support to spend money in an effort to improve reading skills.
“If you look at the state superintendent’s proposal, it is somewhat different than what we have used in the past. And so I think there is some movement to broaden the way we approach reading,” Evers said, after an event hosted by the Wisconsin Counties Association.
Could success in Mississippi be replicated in Wisconsin?
Mississippi is often cited by science of reading advocates as a model of how such approaches can raise achievement. In fourth-grade reading, the state has gone from near the bottom of the nation to the middle — about equal with Wisconsin — in what some call “the Mississippi miracle.” Critics say the progress in Mississippi has been overstated.
Kymyona Burk, one of the leaders of reforms in Mississippi, is scheduled to testify at Thursday’s hearing. She now works for the nonprofit ExcellinEd, which was founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Also testifying will be Mark S. Seidenberg, a UW Madison psychologist whose specialty is how kids learn to read.
Jill Underly, the state superintendent of public instruction, said in a Feb. 14 interview that DPI’s current budget request includes elements of what Mississippi has done, such as funding reading coaches who would help teachers teach reading statewide.
“We’re asking for those things that Mississippi has found successful,“ Underly said. That includes more than the emphasis on phonics.
Underly said one thing Mississippi has provided is sustained funding for its reforms.
DPI encourages districts statewide to use ”evidence based” ways of teaching reading, such as explicit phonics, but it does not have the power to order districts to do so.
Underly said, ”What I would endorse is the teaching of phonics alongside” instruction in comprehension and other aspects of literacy development. She said what is needed is both and not one or the other, a position many science of reading advocates would agree with, depending on the details.
Underly said, “It’s not about the labels. It’s about the evidence, and it’s about research based instruction. … At the end of the day, we agree on a lot.”
The picture isn’t good for Wisconsin reading proficiency
Reading proficiency of Wisconsin students has been generally stagnant for more than two decades, with some declines in the last several years, associated by many people with the effects of the pandemic on education. Achievement of low-income students and Black and Hispanic students has been especially weak; in the case of Black students, it is among the weakest in the nation.
In testing in spring 2022, 37% of third- through eighth-graders statewide were rated as proficient or advanced in reading, while 34% were rated as having basic proficiency, 26%were below basic, and 3% did not take the state tests. For Milwaukee Public Schools students, 14% were proficient or advanced and 54% were below basic.
While reading proficiency is a major education concern nationwide, some states have improved over the last 20 years. That’s not the case here: Wisconsin’s overall standing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests has slipped from near the top to the middle of the pack.
Advocacy for science of reading approaches that include explicit and structured instruction around phonics — generally meaning, the sounding out of letters and words — has grown in the last several years. At the same time, criticism has accelerated of “balanced reading” approaches that put less emphasis on phonics and instruct students to use “cues” to figuring out words, including context and illustrations.
About 30 states have passed laws in recent years that require or encourage greater use of the science of reading. The number of such laws has accelerated in the last 18 months.
Wisconsin could be on the way to being added to that list. Kitchens was asked if a reading law in Wisconsin would require elementary students statewide to be taught using science of reading approaches.
“I hope so,” he said. “At this point, the evidence is so overwhelming” that the phonics-oriented approach works better than the balanced literacy approach.
Most Wisconsin school districts are using curriculum that don’t met quality expectations
In 2021, the DPI and the Wisconsin Center of Education Research at UW-Madison surveyed school districts statewide about the curriculum they use for teaching reading. Participation was voluntary; more than 80% of districts responded. Of those, 79% were using curriculums that were not listed by a national nonprofit organization called EdReports as meeting quality expectations. DPI recommends that districts use programs recommended by the organization.
Science of reading approaches have been adopted by a small, but growing, number of districts statewide, including several Milwaukee area suburbs. Madison is moving in this direction, and Milwaukee Public Schools has begun using a curriculum that meets EdReports recommendations.
Even if there is growing momentum for action in the state Capitol, major issues need to be worked out. They include overall funding, funding for literacy coaches that many advocates consider important to successful implantation, and policy on whether the state would require science of reading programs or take the less assertive path of creating incentives (presumably financial) for districts to do that.
Changes in how some higher education institutions in the state train teachers are a major concern of some advocates, too.
And a sticky controversy could develop over how to deal with students who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade, with some calling for retaining them in that grade until their reading improves. But some say retention is generally more harmful than helpful.
Reading issues have brought out strong advocacy in opposing directions for many years. Kitchens said winning support across the spectrum of opinion in the Legislature and among education leaders statewide will not be easy. But he was hopeful.
“I am absolutely not doing all this work so I can send it to the governor to get vetoed,” Kitchens said. But he emphasized the importance of the issue, saying, “This is one thing we can do that can really make a difference.”
Reporters Danielle DuClos and Molly Beck contributed to this story.
Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.