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Public school reading instruction overhaul clears Wisconsin Assembly

  • Wisconsin would shift to a phonics-based approach to reading lessons in public schools under a bill that cleared the state Assembly on Wednesday.
  • The bill will also require coaching and more frequent testing.
  • The bill comes as only a third of Wisconsin fourth-graders are reportedly able to read at a level considered proficient, the lowest literacy rate reported in two decades.

The way reading is taught in Wisconsin would change to a phonics-based approach under a bill passed Wednesday by the state Assembly, a Republican-authored measure that supporters say is designed to bolster flagging test scores.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers stopped short of endorsing the legislation, but his education department worked with Republicans on it for months. Jill Underly, secretary of the Department of Public Instruction, called the deal ‘a big step in the right direction.’

Republicans control both houses of the state Legislature.

Backers say the education measure will address low reading scores by requiring more frequent tests, coaching and a curriculum that emphasizes phonics, the relationship between sounds and letters, over memorization.

‘We are failing and this is an opportunity to change that,’ said Republican Rep. Joel Kitchens, a lead sponsor of the bill.

A nationwide push to embrace similar methods has gained ground as lawmakers look to address learning losses attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. Wisconsin’s bill is modeled after literacy laws in Mississippi, sometimes referred to as the ‘Mississippi miracle,’ because the changes led to dramatic improvements in the state’s reading scores over the past decade.

Only about a third of Wisconsin fourth-graders scored high enough to be considered proficient readers in 2022, marking a 20-year low, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The Department of Public Instruction originally opposed the bill because it required low-scoring third-graders to repeat reading classes over the summer or during their fourth-grade year. That idea was changed in favor of putting those students in a remedial program with mandatory summer reading courses.

Democrats, many of whom said they generally supported the bill, said it was moving too quickly for them to fully understand.

‘There’s no reason why this bill needs to be rushed in this way,’ Democratic Rep. Christine Sinicki said.

But Kitchens said any delay could lead to the deal falling apart.

The Assembly passed it on a bipartisan vote of 67-27, sending the measure first to the state Senate for consideration, then on to Evers for him to either sign or veto.

The policy changes would apply to both public schools and private ones that participate in state-funded school choice programs. Students in kindergarten through third grade would have to complete three reading assessments a year, up from just one currently. Republicans already set aside $50 million for new curriculum materials, teacher training and hiring reading coaches if the bill becomes law.

Evers vetoed a similar bill last year because it did not include enough funding. Evers’ spokesperson, Britt Cudaback, said that the governor’s office was still reviewing the latest changes.

Kitchens said Wednesday that he believed the governor would sign the bill because the state education department already signed off.

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