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.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede