REPORT: Outdated Reading Curricula Impedes Wisconsin Students

WILL’s review of reading scores and outdated lesson plans show big changes are needed in Wisconsin 

The News: The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) just released a new policy brief and parent resource, Trust the Science? The Use of Outdated Reading Curricula in Wisconsin Schools. In this brief, we explore the correlation between the use of “Whole Language” lesson plans and lower reading proficiency, controlling for other factors.  

In addition to the newly released report, WILL has updated its School Scorecard Dashboard to include school district reading curricula. We believe that giving accurate, easy-to-access information about our school districts is critical to the future of education in Wisconsin. 

The Quote: WILL Research Director, Will Flanders, stated “Reading is a fundamental skill that every successful citizen must have. Right now, outdated ‘Whole Language’ teaching methods dominate many school curricula, and our findings show reading proficiency suffers because of it. We believe in empowering parents to know what their child is learning and support Wisconsin’s efforts to adopt a ‘science-based’ curricula.” 

Why It Matters: Wisconsin’s reading proficiency is suffering, while other states have seen their reading scores improve after adopting lesson plans modeled after “The Science of Reading.” 

Governor Evers vetoed several bills last session that would have required Wisconsin districts to move away from whole language curricula. As this issue continues to be a priority for policymakers and an important topic for families around the state, WILL’s research provides—for the first time—a statewide look at what curricula districts are using for reading, and whether this choice has improved or lowered reading proficiency levels.  

“The Science of Reading” is a “back to the basics” approach that is focused on learning phonics, increasing vocabulary, and sounding out words rather than the context-clue based “guessing” techniques that characterize the popular “Whole Language” approach.  

To learn what curricula your district is using, check out WILL’s School Scorecard at  

Key Findings & Solutions:  

  • About 44% of schools around Wisconsin under the high school level are still using “Whole Language” techniques such as Lucy Calkins and/or Fountas and Pinnell.  
  • Specifically, the use of Lucy Calkins is correlated with lower proficiency. Controlling for a number of other factors that are known to affect reading scores, the use of Lucy Calkins is correlated with about a 2.1% decline in ELA proficiency. 
  • Controlling for a number of other factors known to affect reading scores, the use of Lucy Calkins or the less used Fountas and Pinnell curriculum is correlated with 2.7% lower reading scores.  
  • Policymakers should consider adopting best practices from “The Science of Reading.” Areas across the political spectrum from Mississippi and Florida to New York City are moving away from “Whole Language” methods towards science-based curricula.

WILL is grateful for our continued partnership with the Tommy Thompson Center on Public Leadership on this important topic.

Dig Deeper: 

Will Flanders, PHD

Will Flanders, PHD

Research Director

Matt LeVene

Policy Intern

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