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.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.