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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Taking Steps to Improve Student Literacy

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

January 9, 2012


All schools would implement early literacy screenings for kindergarten students, and prospective teachers would need to pass a more rigorous reading test before they can receive their licenses under recommendations released by a Wisconsin education task force.
The report from the Read to Lead task force, spearheaded by Gov. Scott Walker and co-led by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, aims to improve reading achievement in Wisconsin, a state that has slipped from being a leader in reading in the 1990s. Since then, the state’s average reading score has fallen while the national average reading score has risen, according to a national standardized test.
Some of the task force’s recommendations would require legislative action, but they were generally well-received by various groups, including the state’s largest teachers union, and signal that Wisconsin might be on a serious path to reshaping the way reading is taught.
“When it comes to reading instruction, we have stagnated over the past decade, and we need to ratchet up our work,” Evers said at Highland View Elementary School in Greendale, where details of the task force’s report were released.
The group, which has been meeting since March 2011, included educators, reading experts, elected officials from both parties, and philanthropic and nonprofit representatives. State Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), Rep. Steve Kestell (R-Elkhart Lake) and Rep. Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee) were the elected officials on the task force.
Specifically, the task force recommendations included:
  • Pushing for legislative action that would require all schools to use a universal literacy screener with 4 and 5-year-old kindergartners, and perhaps also first and second-graders, depending on funding. The screener would allow teachers to identify earlier which children exhibit risk factors for not being able to read. The initial kindergarten screener would be paid for with $600,000 set aside in the budget for the Read to Lead task force, Walker said.
  • Strengthening teacher preparation requirements in reading instruction. Before prospective teachers could gain their teaching license, they would need to pass a new, more rigorous test that assesses their knowledge of how to teach reading. The task force recommended the state adopt a test called “Foundations of Reading,” used by Massachusetts as part of its teacher licensure exam. Massachusetts has received praise for raising its students’ reading scores.
  • Requiring initial teachers who submit professional development plans to the state to also include a component about teaching reading in that plan.
  • Pushing for legislative action that would allow public-private partnerships at the state level.
  • Promoting a new online portal, Read Wisconsin, for teachers around the state to share best practices in reading instruction.
  • Designating a point person for reading instruction in each district.
The plan does not prescribe exactly how to teach reading, thereby sidestepping a fierce debate that raged in the 1980s and 1990s about whether whole language or phonics instruction was the most effective method. Instead, Walker said, the task force felt teachers weren’t being given enough time, training and skills to help kids to read.
Mary Newton, a reading tutor who works with the Wisconsin Reading Coalition, said screenings for young students often include two important tests: one asking them to rapidly name what they see in a series of simple pictures and one asking them to identify sounds in words. “When you have kids who haven’t started to read yet, you can still screen them for pre-reading skills,” she said.
There were also ideas that fell off the table. Walker said that after discussions with educators, he dropped an initial plan to have children held back at the end of third grade if they weren’t proficient in reading.
The task force could not agree on how to improve preparation programs at the 33 Wisconsin institutions that educate teachers. So instead of mandating a standardized curriculum for those programs, the recommendation is a new licensing test for prospective teachers. The test that would-be teachers currently take to get their license, called the Praxis 2, includes relatively few questions about reading.
Sarah Archibald, a legislative policy consultant who works for Olsen, said the public-private partnership recommendation would allow private businesses or organizations to connect with the state and funnel money toward reading programs state officials think are working.
Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said she still had some questions about elements of the report. She was concerned that recommendation would allow a program to proceed in one district because a private funder liked it, while students in another district without a private funder would miss out.

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