The State of Literacy Law in the STATES: Focus Wisconsin

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By Claire R. Mullins, IDA Advocacy and Government Affairs Staff

Proponents of creating strong literacy laws in Wisconsin were feeling cautiously optimistic last fall. They had the support of legislators who partnered with them to craft draft legislation to improve fundamental skills in the state’s schools which had tumbled in national rankings from 3rd to 30th in the past decade. Advocates urgently wanted to rectify the harrowing fact that Wisconsin’s African-American 4th graders have the lowest reading skills in the nation, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The group was actively working to cultivate support and increase understanding of literacy issues among the education committees in the state’s legislature. Then the mid-term elections took place, and the governorship, state house and senate changed parties, and so went the agenda. The primary focus now is on the state’s economy, with job creation and taxes at the forefront, and conversation about educational reform has ground to a near halt.

Cheryl Ward, President of the Wisconsin Branch of the IDA and an active volunteer for the Wisconsin Reading Coalition, says that every day that ends without literacy reform is another lost opportunity for the future of Wisconsin’s children. “It’s like 12,000 kids fall off an academic cliff every year,” she says of the abysmal rate of children that score proficient in reading and other skills needed to become engaged, productive citizens.

The small but mighty group in the state that is pushing for literacy reform has made inroads recently with school psychologists who support and are accepting of the scientific, evidence-based approach to what works in education. Ms. Ward notes that there are still gaps in the willingness of some teachers and school administrators to change direction, and one of the most important reforms involves educating teachers-of-reading within the state. Most Wisconsin schools are not prepared to implement an effective Response to Intervention (RtI) approach, and the recent Specific Learning Disability (SLD) rule will not be implemented in the majority of schools until 2014. Wisconsin’s RtI guidelines allow wide discretion to educators to choose or create their own instructional methods, regardless of scientific research or evidence that they are effective, and advocates fear the SLD rule will result in an incredible disconnect between students and their needs.

“Wisconsin has a lot to be proud of,” Ms. Ward says. However, the reality is the state lacks effective teacher preparedness and public or private higher education institutions with programs in place that reflect progressive standards, such as the Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading recently released by IDA. Thus, there is little to no expertise in reading education among Wisconsin’s traditional key decision-makers.

Ms. Ward says there is reason to feel positive regarding some actions taken during during this legislative session. She notes that the group has had good conversations with the new Governor’s staff and the education chairs in both branches. The Wisconsin Reading Coalition has created a powerful public service announcement to raise awareness of the issues. They plan to begin working with an educational financial watch group to show that simply reallocating funds towards programs like professional development, and not necessarily spending more, yields positive results. They are also seeking new partners, from community activists to parents, to increase their numbers and voice. One notable volunteer, a former teacher, got involved after an encounter with a 5th grader who was unable to read.

While the bill is shelved at this time, Ms. Ward is hopeful that as lawmakers become increasingly aware of the social problems that arise as literacy rates decline, educational reform progress will be made through new state legislation. It is only then that Wisconsin will once again rise to the top of the national rankings, fulfilling a promise to each and every student in the state.

To read more about what Wisconsin is doing to improve literacy, visit

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