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Tennessee unveils $100 million plan to help its youngest students read better

A teacher leads a reading class at Gardenview Elementary in Memphis.
A teacher leads a reading class at Gardenview Elementary in Memphis in 2019.
Karen Pulfer Focht/Chalkbeat

Tennessee plans to invest $100 million of one-time federal funds in phonics-based reading programs in a sweeping attack on low student literacy rates that have bedeviled the state for decades.

Calling it an “exciting moment,” Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn on Monday unveiled Reading 360, an array of programs to train teachers on reading instruction, provide more resources and mentoring networks to school districts, and support families to help their students read better.

The goal is to reverse this year’s anticipated learning loss due to the coronavirus pandemic and then catapult third-grade reading proficiency rates from 37% to 62% by 2025 under a new campaign known as “25 by 25.” The state’s previous reading goal, set in 2016 by former Gov. Bill Haslam, was for 75% of third-graders to read on grade level by 2020.

“We are saying that we are serious about this as a state,” Schwinn said of the new charge against illiteracy using federal COVID-19 relief funds and two major grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

“Now we have this one-time opportunity to invest a significant amount of money — not just in one part of the reading continuum but the entirety,” she added during an interview with Chalkbeat.

The investment comes as Tennessee officials project a 50% drop in reading proficiency rates for third-graders because of disruptions to schooling that began last spring, though those projections are based on pre-pandemic data. Gov. Bill Lee also has identified literacy as one of five topics to be discussed during a special legislative session on education scheduled to begin on Jan. 19.

“We know that teaching reading is hard. It has always been hard. But it is even more so as a result of COVID,” Schwinn said.

It’s hard to know exactly how much the public health crisis has hurt students’ reading skills across Tennessee, or the nation. State tests were canceled last spring, and this school year’s assessments won’t be given for several months, if they happen at all. The nonprofit testing organization NWEA predicted that students started this school year having lost roughly a third of a year in reading and half a year in math.

The pandemic also worsened gaps in access to school resources. That means Tennessee’s reading investment, while significant, will be a drop in the bucket toward addressing learning losses that have disproportionately hurt students who were already behind academically, including students of color and those from low-income families.

The federal funding allows Lee’s administration to implement literacy programs that it couldn’t convince the legislature to pass last year as the economy sputtered, tax revenues dropped, and lawmakers struggled to reach a consensus on the best approach. A major component of that legislation would have set aside tens of millions of dollars to train teachers on the foundational principles of reading instruction and work with colleges and universities to retool their teacher training programs on literacy.

According to a request for proposals released in late December, the department plans to spend $8.9 million to hire a vendor to retrain up to 11,000 educators in prekindergarten through fourth grade with a weeklong virtual course this spring and another week in person over the summer. Teachers will get a $1,000 stipend after completing the training and also receive a classroom kit with reading resources, Schwinn said.

The contract might be renewed for up to $500,000 annually, which would require legislative approval for recurring funds.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn interacts with students during a visit to Forest Hill Elementary School in Germantown, near Memphis, on Sept. 2, 2020.
Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal

Schwinn emphasized that all programs under Reading 360 will be optional and separate from any reading legislation that lawmakers pursue this year.

“Nothing in Reading 360 is mandatory,” she said. “They are about supports and resources that districts have said they need or that would be helpful to them, so we are providing options using one-time funds.”

She also said that Reading 360 has “nothing to do” with a similarly named product by Renaissance Learning, a publicly traded company that sells Accelerated Reader and Star Testing programs. Rather, the name stems from Tennessee being positioned to tackle the literacy crisis “from all sides.”

The Tennessee State Board of Education is responsible for reading policies related to teaching methods, practices, and curriculum. Three of its leaders — Sara Morrison, Lillian Hartgrove, and Robert Eby — were among 15 education leaders issuing statements of support for Reading 360 in the department’s four-page news release.

Spokeswoman Elizabeth Tullos said the state board had input in the plan and will work alongside the department on its rollout. “Over time, the board anticipates it will assist through crafting policies for educator preparation providers, examining instructional materials, and providing oversight,” she said.

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