Don’t rush Tennessee’s literacy plan, educator groups urge governor

Several key groups are urging Gov. Bill Lee’s administration to slow down deliberations and consult more with educators about his comprehensive proposal for revamping reading instruction in Tennessee schools.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Penny Schwinn said Monday that the Department of Education is in the process of issuing requests for proposals to contract with outside vendors who would help with everything from teacher training to developing a new diagnostic reading test for students in early grades.

The $68 million literacy plan is scheduled to debut before a House legislative panel on Tuesday, one day after Republican sponsors introduced a nine-page amendment with numerous changes to a bill filed earlier this month by majority leaders William Lamberth in the House and Jack Johnson in the Senate.

The timing sparked frustration by groups that already had been analyzing the potential impact of the initial proposal.

“Any legislation with this large of a fiscal commitment by the state should have as many eyes looking at it as possible,” said J.C. Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee. 

Dale Lynch, who leads the state superintendents association, also was poring over the amendment before Tuesday’s hearing.

“We’re not opposed to this bill, but it’s just too important to rush through,” Lynch said. “We need to do this right, and that takes time.”

With just over a third of its third-graders reading on or above grade level, Tennessee has become more attentive to its persistent reading problems but has not reached any kind of consensus about whether the governor’s proposal is on target.

Lee thrilled literacy advocates earlier this month when he set aside millions in his spending plan for a new initiative to ground teachers in phonics-based reading instruction. The Republican governor proposed an extra $48.6 million for 2020-21 and another $11.1 million for each year thereafter to instruct teachers in the so-called “science of reading,” which emphasizes phonemic awareness, vocabulary development, fluency, and oral reading.

Another $20 million would help local districts buy high-quality instructional materials and train teachers on how to use them — the first time that the state has offered to help with that expense.

District leaders are on board with equipping teachers with evidence-based foundational skills in reading instruction. Many school systems have already done so. But they worry that the state could overreach when it comes to other elements of the proposal — for instance, introducing a first-ever state diagnostic test for students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade. Currently, state testing is limited to grades 3-11 and, in recent years, Tennessee has worked hard to reduce the number of state-required assessments in response to concerns about overtesting.

Timing is an issue, too. Teachers could begin training on new reading instruction practices as soon as July, but districts and teachers already are drawing up their plans for professional development for that time.

“It’s a very heavy lift in a very short period of time,” said Lynch, who suggests allowing districts to opt in the first year.

Seeking to allay concerns, Schwinn emailed Tennessee superintendents on Monday with information to answer some of their questions and to ask them to complete a survey that includes their preferences for the timing of literacy training for teachers.

“The department has not solidified plans related to the specifics of district-level implementation, as we do not have funds or completed procurement processes,” she wrote. “The department wants to ensure that as we craft these initial plans, it is with your individual district needs in mind.”

Speaking with Chalkbeat, Schwinn promised that more conversations are coming about literacy-related accountability as the state seeks to get accurate data about how students are progressing. But for now, the focus is on providing educators with supports, districts with financial resources, and classrooms with high-quality instructional materials.

“We’re not just saying, ‘Go do it.’ We are now saying that we have to resource it,” she said of Lee’s proposed $68 million literacy investment. “This is not an unfunded mandate.”

The amendment filed on Monday adds one provision about third-grade retention policies that were adopted but not enforced under a 2011 state law. Officials with both the department and the governor said the change is to consolidate language that’s already in state code. The legislature’s fiscal officer also did not adjust estimated costs in the bill to reflect the $14 million-plus price tag of retaining students who can’t demonstrate reading proficiency.

You can read the full amendment below: