Starting with basics (copy) (copy) (copy)

The 14-member Early Literacy and Beyond Task Force announced Monday includes seven members from each entity who will “focus on analyzing the most promising approaches to teaching reading and making recommendations to MMSD and to teacher education programs at UW-Madison toward the goals of improving reading outcomes and reducing achievement gaps."

The Madison Metropolitan School District and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education hope a new task force can improve literacy instruction for teachers and outcomes for students.

The 14-member Early Literacy and Beyond Task Force announced Monday includes seven members from each entity who will “focus on analyzing the most promising approaches to teaching reading and making recommendations to MMSD and to teacher education programs at UW-Madison toward the goals of improving reading outcomes and reducing achievement gaps,” according to the announcement.

MMSD superintendent Carlton Jenkins said in a press conference Monday the effort toward better literacy teaching was overdue.

“The day before this would’ve been a great time to do it," Jenkins said. "Ten days before that.”

Jenkins, who started in MMSD in August, has spoken regularly of the importance of early literacy amid the persistent gaps in reading scores in the district between white students and their peers of color. He has stressed that the district needs to shift to an approach known as the “science of reading,” which more strongly stresses early phonics instruction than the current “balanced literacy” curriculum used most widely here. The latter teaches literacy through a variety of readings and word studies, but can create bad habits that hinder reading comprehension long-term, according to critics.

“These disparities that we’re facing across the country, they’re very consistent, and it comes back to those children that did not get that heavy foundation early on with phonics," Jenkins said.

In MMSD, 34.9% of students in grades 3-8 scored “Proficient” or “Advanced” on the statewide Forward Exam in 2018-19, the most recent year the exam was given. The results were worse for every non-white group of students other than Asians, who had the same percentage as the district as a whole in those two categories.

[Law review article highlights MMSD’s racial disparities in literacy]

Just 10.1% of Black students taking the exam scored above “Basic,” with 58.9% scoring “Below Basic,” the lowest level. For Hispanic students, meanwhile, 16% scored “Proficient” or “Advanced,” with 46.9% scoring “Below Basic.”

Jenkins noted during a press conference Monday that the whole state needs to see improvement in literacy, and he hopes Madison can be a leader in changing the statewide disparities.

“It’s not just Madison," he said. "In Wisconsin, we have the number one disparities in the country. In Madison getting it right, it’s going to help Wisconsin get it right.”

The task force will begin meeting in January with four charges:

  • Identifying how literacy, especially early literacy, is currently taught across MMSD and analyzing achievement data for MMSD students with respect to literacy.
  • Examining how literacy, especially early literacy, is being taught to teacher education students at UW–Madison’s School of Education and analyzing what these future teachers are currently learning about literacy.
  • Reviewing and becoming familiar with the best evidence about the most effective ways to teach literacy in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade — and developing future teachers who can better teach literacy in schools.
  • Making recommendations to MMSD and the UW-Madison School of Education about steps to be taken that can strengthen literacy instruction in the Madison schools and UW-Madison’s teacher education programs.

Recommendations are expected by June.

School of Education Dean Diana Hess said at the press conference the task force would "ensure that all students have the very best early literacy and beyond instruction.”

“We know we have an obligation not only to the Madison Metropolitan School district but to all school districts in Wisconsin and beyond," Hess said. “We’ll be looking carefully at how we’re teaching it in our teacher education programs as well.”

[MMSD operating referendum would fund 'priority projects' like early literacy, Black Excellence]

The members of the task force are: John Diamond, Mariana Castro, Beverly Trezek, Mark Seidenberg, Dawnene Hassett, Melinda Leko, Ashley White, Ana Gabriela Bell Jiménez, Lisa Hepburn, Angie Hicks, Lisa Kvistad, Jaclyn Smith, Chan Stroman and Jorge Covarrubias. Kvistad and Diamond will co-chair the group.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.