Can every child in Tennessee read on grade level by third grade?
The TN Dept. of Education is prepared to spend $100 million to make sure that happens.
Originally unveiled in January, the “Reading 360” initiative will include $100 million by leveraging $60 million in one-time federal Covid-19 relief funding and $40 million in federal grant funding to invest in school districts, teachers and at-home efforts to improve reading skills.
Reading 360 will provide grants and resources to help Tennessee students develop phonics-based reading skills.
“When our students succeed our entire state prospers, and we know that reading on grade level is foundational to the success of every student, both in and out of the classroom,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said in January. “Reading 360 will give critical support to districts and educators so we can address this challenge urgently and put Tennessee’s students on the right track to grow and thrive.”
Penny Schwinn, Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education, who was slated to visit Scott County on Tuesday, said that Tennessee has increased expectations for student learning and educational outcomes over the past decade, and is now ready to take the next step.
“We are uniquely positioned to tackle literacy with urgency and can do so from all sides,” Schwinn said. “Our state has a golden opportunity to lead the nation in literacy, and most importantly, accelerate progress for our students.”
Experts say that reading proficiency by third grade is a critical milestone for students. Yet, only one-third of Tennessee’s third graders met expectations prior to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Reading 360 will work by providing optional grants to school districts, which will provide access to tutoring and online support for students and families, helping to develop foundational skills in literacy. Free training and professional training will be provided to educators, who will also receive phonics kits and materials to use in their classrooms.
Scott County teachers were undergoing a two-week Early Reading Training program this week. It is a program made available to all K-4 teachers, as well as fifth grade classroom teachers, special education teachers and English as a Second Language teachers.
The Dept. of Education announced in April that it was making $1,000 stipends available for each teacher who completes the training program.
The goal of the training, according to the Dept. of Education, is to ensure that any Tennessee educator who helps young children learn how to read will have access to the latest research, information and tools to show them how to apply new learning.
“Becoming a strong reader by third grade is a critical milestone in a student’s academic journey, and in Tennessee, we are focusing on ensuring students who are still developing reading skills have strong supports, including excellent reading instruction,” said Schwinn, who was in Scott County this week to observe the training program. “By providing kindergarten, first, second, third, fourth and now fifth grade teachers a $1,000 stipend for completing the department’s Early Reading Training, Tennessee teachers will be compensated for their professional development, and more students will benefit from strong phonics-based instruction when learning how to read.”
In addition to the stipend, teachers in grades K-2 who complete the training will receive “classroom kits” of reading materials to use in their classrooms.
This month’s training course was the second week of training, conducted in-person. The first week of training was conducted as an online learning experience.
Free reading resources
Another part of the initiative will provide an at-home Decodable Book Series for all Tennessee families of K-2 students. The series encourages at-home reading practice to help students become stronger readers.
Each free decodable packet has seven decodable booklets, which contain more than 20 stories full of sounds and words to practice. Families can read the stories at home with their child to help them sound out words and build their reading skills.
“Reading and strong literacy skills open doors of opportunities for children throughout their education and well after they graduate,” Schwinn said. “Tennessee has invested deeply in literacy to help strengthen and extend the learning that happens in classrooms every day.”
Tennessee families can order one packet for each of their students who are in kindergarten, first or second grades. The booklets will be delivered by mail. An order form can be found at tn.gov/education/decodables.
How does literacy in Tennessee rank?
While only one-third of Tennessee’s students meet reading proficiency expectations by third grade, a rate the Reading 360 initiative hopes to improve, Tennessee’s overall literacy rate is almost 87%. That’s significantly better than states like California and New York, where literacy rates are 77% and 78%, respectively, but it’s also nowhere near the nation’s Top 10 states when it comes to adult literacy.
In New Hampshire, the literacy rate is a chart-topping 94%. Minnesota ranks closely behind, followed by North Dakota, Vermont and South Dakota. Also with literacy rates above 92% are Nebraska, Wisconsin, Maine, Iowa and Missouri, in that order.
In addition to California and New York, states with low literacy rates include Florida, Texas and New Jersey, in that order.