Another Lost Decade: Madison's Reading Crisis Continues

On the wall at Simpson Street is a feature editorial from the Wisconsin State Journal. The headline reads “Support State Reading Initiatives” and announces the launch of a bipartisan effort co-chaired by Tony Evers and Scott Walker. The editorial is dated September 12, 2012.

Local News and Numbers

Recent reports by Wisconsin State Journal, The Capital Times, Channel 3 News, Isthmus, and other news outlets paint a new, more tragic picture. Nothing has changed. Achievement gaps are worse.

Reporting on the latest round of Forward Exams, Logan Wroge of the Wisconsin State Journal points out that fewer than half of Wisconsin students are proficient or advanced in English/language arts or math, and that those numbers are going down. About 543,000 Wisconsin students in grades 3-8 took part in Forward Exams last school year.

Forward Exam results, as in previous years, show Madison students trailing state-wide averages.

“In grades 3-8, 34.8% of Madison students are proficient or advanced in English on the Forward Exam and 38.2% in Math,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal .

In the Madison school district, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced was stagnant or slightly down from 2017-18. Language arts dropped from “36.6% in 2017-18 to 34.9% last year. In math, the percentage went from 38.2% to 38.4%, and in social studies from 46.7% to 45.5%” according to The Capital Times.

Wisconsin DPI reports almost 60% of African-American students in Madison scored “below basic” in language arts on recent Forward exams. About 47% of Hispanic students scored below basic in English-Language Arts. Only 10.1% of black students and 16% of Hispanic students scored in one of the two highest categories (proficient or advanced) The Capital Times reported.

What’s more, students in the state of Mississippi continue to outperform kids living in Madison, Wisconsin.

The Science of Reading

An excellent and eye-opening investigation by Amanda Quintana at Channel 3 News reports what Simpson Street and other local activists have been saying for years: Madison schools still rely on cueing techniques to teach young readers. And Madison has largely ignored advances in the science of reading field.

“Our materials were last adopted almost a decade ago. This is a chance for us to refresh those materials and really think about what's out there and how has research changed since then, and what are we thinking about as best practices now” Teresa Morateck, MMSD's director for literacy and humanities. told Channel 3 News.

Quintana’s interview with Steve Dykstra of the Wisconsin Reading Coalition calls attention to a “grassroots movement pushing for the state to embrace the science of reading.” 

“There are different ways of figuring out a word, but only one of them is reading,” said Dykstra. “What we know about reading is skilled readers, beginning readers who go on to be skilled readers, use letters and sounds to figure out words,” according to Dykstra.

Madison and many other Wisconsin school districts use cueing techniques, which Dykstra says can “often distract young readers from really learning to read.” In her report, Quintana explains cueing by saying that when a student comes to a word they don't know, they will guess the word, try to figure it out by looking at a picture, skip it or replace it. 

Debate and Discourse Needed

Excellent local journalism by Jenny Peek at Isthmus recently helped alert parents and the public to crucial and ongoing debates about literacy and the science of reading. Peek reports that “Critics of the way the [Madison] district and state teach reading point to the fact that Wisconsin is one of the last holdouts using a balanced literacy approach.”

The Isthmus cover story authored by Peek describes the widely-studied work of Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at UW Madison. After decades of researching how humans acquire language skills, Seidenberg is blunt in his assessment of how we are doing in Wisconsin and in Madison.

“If you want your kid to learn to read you can’t assume that the school’s going to take care of it. You have to take care of it outside of the school, if there’s someone in the home who can do it or if you have enough money to pay for a tutor or learning center,” Seidenberg told Isthmus.

Lisa Kvistad is the Madison district’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. Kvistad told Isthmus that “getting the right balance of foundational skills and exposure to grade-level curriculum is an art.” She explained MMSD’s balanced approach to literacy instruction and pointed out Madison schools also offer a supplemental online program called Lexia for students who want to work on phonics.

“There’s always a temptation to do more phonics,” Kvistad told Isthmus. But Kvistad also says there are drawbacks to that: “Those little ones never get a chance to access grade level curriculum, to engage in rich dialogue with the students in class, to have experience with grade-level vocabulary.”

In the same article Dykstra called balanced literacy the “current name for the bad way to teach reading.” Dykstra said balanced literacy evolved from the “whole language” approach, a now-discredited type of instruction.

Stephan Parker, a teacher and education researcher who has written widely on the subject language acquisition, agrees with Dykstra about the origins of the balanced approach. Parker says “There is no balance in Balanced Literacy. Essentially, it's Whole Language with some ineffective phonics added in after the child starts reading based on memorized sight words or using guessing strategies.”

Parker studied the history of teaching reading and recently published a paper called A Brief History of Reading Instruction.

“Many members of the education establishment and professors in teaching colleges, many school administrators, do not react favorably” to reports and studies that advocate for a “return to phonics,” Parker says.

What has happened in the past 20 years, according to Parker, is that many American school districts abandoned the name Whole Language. Parker says while the term “vanishes from the education scene and from education journals, what takes its place is called Balanced Literacy.”

Who Pays the Price

This Simpson Street Free Press column is not about bad news, or about blame. Rather we write now about how we (all of us) can change things and save kids. Like all the editorials, all the reporting in Simpson Street’s Urgency of NOW series, it’s about journalism, accountability, and vulnerable children who need help.

Whatever the debates, whatever course Madison chooses, we need to get it right. And getting it right requires robust civic discourse. Simply put, Madison has to care. Madison policy makers have to care about Madison’s reading crisis. If not, the consequents will be dire. Like always, local kids will pay the price.

According to a report by American Public Media the newest data confirms what we in Madison already know: “When kids struggle to learn to read, it can lead to a downward spiral in which behavior, vocabulary, knowledge and other cognitive skills are eventually affected by slow reading development. A disproportionate number of poor readers become high school dropouts and end up in the criminal justice system,” according to APM Reports.

Promising News

There are some good signs. The Channel 3 News report by Amanda Quintana quoted Lisa Kvistad and other MMSD officials signaling a hard look at current reading instruction practices. According to Quintana’s report “The Madison Metropolitan School District is currently working with DPI to adopt new materials, acknowledging research about the importance of a brain-based letter sound approach.”

MMSD leaders also say they “will be consulting with local reading experts and teachers.”

More promising signals came from State Schools Superintendent, Carolyn Stanford Taylor. In her first State of Education address, which she delivered last week at the Capitol, Stanford Taylor called Wisconsin’s achievement gap a “crisis” that must be addressed.

While Stanford Taylor’s speech and the Republican response predictably jabbed at each other, Simpson Street saw things differently. We saw good news and common ground. The kind of talk referenced in the Wisconsin State Journal editorial from 2012. The Republican response, delivered by Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, hit many of the same themes championed by Stanford Taylor.

There is growing recognition on all sides of various political aisles about the importance of out-of-school time and the science of reading. In particular, extended-day academics moves the needle. Youth organizations, neighborhood groups, and many civic leaders are mobilizing.

Maybe these are only small silver linings, and perhaps fleeting. But at least now Madison knows where it stands. Parents, journalists, and the public should view with suspicion any attempt to change what’s measured. The more journalists who watchdog this crisis, the more local kids will benefit. Reading and math come first. And it’s urgent.

[Sources: Wisconsin DPI; Isthmus; Wisconsin State Journal; Channel 3000; Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel; The Capital Times]