reading intervention

Tennessee rolls out sweeping literacy initiatives amid stagnant reading scores

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Sharpe Elementary reading interventionist Valencia Ealy works one-on-one with a student on vocabulary words last year in Memphis. Shelby County Schools has started its own program to address lagging literacy scores.

Calling Tennessee’s stagnant reading scores a “true ethical and moral dilemma,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is rolling out a pair of initiatives to boost students’ literacy skills, starting even before they enter school.

Under McQueen’s plan, educators across the state will get additional training about how to teach reading, support from a growing fleet of literacy coaches, and insights from new standardized tests. In addition, state agencies will team up to grapple with the realities that cause many poor children to start kindergarten without basic literacy skills.

The plan is the state’s response to a persistent and disturbing trend: Even as Tennessee’s steadily climbing math and science results have garnered national attention, reading scores for grades 3-8 haven’t budged. This year, just 48.4 percent of students in grades 3-8 passed the state’s proficiency bar in reading, down from a peak of 50.5 percent in 2013.

“This is a true ethical and moral dilemma,” McQueen said. “Reading allows students to see the world through books, through texts, through information they would otherwise not have access to.”

Shelby County Schools in Memphis and the state-run Achievement School District have announced their own plans to tackle low reading scores. But the state’s plan — McQueen’s first major initiative since starting her work as commissioner early this year — is the most sweeping.

Under Ready to Read, focused on children from infancy to second grade, the Department of Education will partner with other state agencies to ensure that children who enter kindergarten in Tennessee are already primed to learn to read. Then, Read to be Ready will help educators prepare students in grades 3 and higher for overhauled state exams that will require stronger reading skills than ever.

The early literacy initiative — which McQueen unveiled in a meeting with teachers last month — is new for the state education department. First lady Crissy Haslam has made the issue her top advocacy priority since her husband, Gov. Bill Haslam, took office in 2011. But state education leaders had not focused on the issue until now.

Though details aren’t complete, McQueen hopes to work with other state agencies in the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet, which consists of the heads of the departments of children’s services, education, health, human services and mental health, to provide parents and caretakers with more resources about reading from the get-go. The Department of Education will work to create and implement higher standards for literacy in both public pre-kindergarten programs and private childcare centers, so more people are aware of what it means to be ready for kindergarten, and more children actually are.

Together, the coordination aims to ensure that students are not held back by their home environments and early experiences with literacy.

Studies have found that children who are raised in literacy-rich environments, where parents speak in complex sentences and expose them to the written word, enter kindergarten knowing more words and more ready to start reading.

Candice McQueen
PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

McQueen said such research has informed her planning. “The sheer gap of words a kindergartener knows is evident immediately,” she said.

The department also is developing tools to help schools and teachers assess the literacy skills of students who are too young to take the state’s required reading exam, which is first administered in third grade. One tool will help kindergarten teachers understand their students’ literacy skills before they enter the classroom. A second, an optional standardized test, will measure skills of children in kindergarten through second grades.

The new assessments come at a time when testing faces growing criticism in Tennessee and across the nation. But McQueen, who appointed a task force to study whether Tennessee students spend too much time on testing, said the tests are meant to give educators what they say they want.

“When I was going across the state as part of (my) tour, it was striking the number of times I heard a teacher say, ‘I really need better information about how my students are performing before they get into third grade,’” McQueen said.

David Dickinson, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education who studies early childhood literacy, cautioned that a test that actually will provide teachers with the nuanced knowledge they need — like the breadth of a child’s vocabulary or their ability to follow a story — would be hard to create and administer.

“I haven’t seen any mass-administered tests in school districts that are effective in measuring those skills,” he said.

The department has to pick a different test; its current option for testing lower grades is being phased out by Pearson this year. The department will accept and review applications for the new test in the coming months.

“This will be better in that it will actually meet the Tennessee standards,” McQueen said of the current Common Core State Standards.

Students in grades 3-8 will also begin taking tests this school year that reflect the standards, which are now in their third year of full implementation. To mark the shift, the state is renaming its testing program, swapping the TCAP acronym for TNReady, and preparing educators and families for lower scores.

The new tests — and the standards that they will assess — underlie the second prong of McQueen’s literacy initiative. Ready to Read includes a slate of strategies to help teachers prepare students for more complicated reading passages and questions that require strong comprehension skills to answer.

“We know that the reading content on TNReady will be more rigorous texts than students have had in the past,” McQueen said.

In addition to providing educators across the state with materials to help them prepare students for the new test, officials plan to expand literacy instruction courses that the state launched in 2013.

The goal, McQueen said, is to double the number of teachers participating in the courses, from 7,000 to 14,000 by December 2016.

McQueen said she envisions using literacy coaches across the state to model lessons for teachers and help them create lesson plans. Districts that don’t already have coaches will have the option to get help using their existing staff to support teachers in their classrooms, she said. Since the planning period is ongoing, the price tag of the initiative is unclear, but officials hope that by using existing literacy coaches and staff members, it will be minimal.

State officials are already at work rewriting literacy standards for teacher preparation programs, not just for the early grades, elementary and middle school teachers, but for high school English teachers, as well as special education and teachers who teach English Language Learners.

“We want more of our teachers to understand the art and science of reading,” McQueen said.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.