When the National Assessment of Education (NAEP) report was released showing that Black 4th grade public school students in Wisconsin had the lowest reading scores in the Nation, there was a wide range of reactions from the community, i.e. shock, disbelief, frustration and outrage. While the scores were not just from Milwaukee it was widely understood that the Milwaukee scores were similar to the state scores. In fact, a report of NAEP scores for 18 large school districts had Milwaukee next to last for 4th grade reading for Black students. Only Detroit scored lower than Milwaukee.
Shortly after the report went public, Dr. Howard Fuller, director of the Marquette University Institute for the Transformation of Learning, and former Milwaukee Public School (MPS) Superintendent, convened a meeting of Black elected officials, educators, ministers, students, community organizations and concerned citizens to not only talk about the dismal reading scores, but to also discuss strategies to deal with this crisis. Dr. Fuller said “the community needs a sense of urgency and action is needed now to prevent a generation of Black children from loosing out on a good education because they cannot read.”
The people attending the meeting acknowledged that fixing this problem would not be quick or easy. In order to have long-term sustained improvement, there must be fundamental changes in the policies and teaching practices for reading in our educational systems. This will be difficult because reading experts have strong differing opinions regarding which approach to teaching reading works best.
Alan Borsuk, in a column for the Journal Sentinel, called the differing opinions “the reading wars”. While we all agree that no one wants to restart a war, it is clear based on the 4th grade reading scores, that what is being done now is not working. Therefore, several strategies have been initiated to address the reading crisis. One of these strategies, a six week pilot Milwaukee Reading Project began on June 28, 2010.
The reading project will serve up to 150 elementary children and operate at 5 schools. Three of the sites are MPS schools, one independent charter school and one private school participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. It was decided to include non-MPS school because although the NAEP scores that are cited are only for MPS students, the problem exists throughout the Milwaukee education “ecosystem.”
In addition to a rigorous curriculum for the children, the project will have a parental involvement component to equip parents with skills needed to help their children improve reading proficiency. Lessons learned from the pilot reading program can be used to expand the program in the future and hopefully, provide useful information to MPS and other educators on how to more effectively teach reading to Black elementary students.
Dr. Fuller, Dr. Patricia Ellis who is leading the project and members of the Black community who are involved should be commended for taking on this enormous challenge. It is widely understood that reading is the cornerstone to educational achievement and The Milwaukee Urban League supports this community based advocacy effort to help ensure that all of our children have the skills needed to compete in a 21st century global society.
President & CEO
Milwaukee Urban League