Our great state is committing $100 million to improve students’ literacy learning. It’s badly needed. Fewer than 40 percent of the state’s fourth-graders read proficiently, defined by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) as being able to read challenging material.
Tennessee is not alone in these statistics, but that does not make the crisis less urgent. Reading is the foundation of learning everything else, and it is the great determiner of lives. Proficient readers are more likely to go to college or keep a fulfilling job for life. Success in literacy is associated with higher wealth and better health. Those who do not learn to read proficiently face the opposite, a life of struggling at work, poverty, drug use, and depression. Our economy depends on workers who read and write well, as does our citizenry. Nothing is more important nor more bipartisan, as shown by the phenomenal commitment made by Governor Bill Lee and our legislature this year.
Tennessee’s comprehensive approach to tackling literacy illustrates the recognition that literacy is everyone’s business. We all have a stake in how well children learn to read. The Tennessee Literacy Success Act and the Tennessee Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act were drafted to address schools, principals, teachers, and students. The policies address how teachers are prepared to teach reading and how principals are prepared to support those teachers. The policies address extra tutoring students need and ways to mitigate the devastating effects that long summers without learning have on children’s progress. The policies even add family support through in-person and online resources. This systems approach to solving this big, audacious problem is the only chance we have to get it right.
But there is a big difference between policy and implementation. It would be crushing to see any of this money wasted, and we all know it can happen. We must be good stewards of these funds.
A systems approach means well-coordinated communication among all the entities. For example, teacher educators must prepare new teachers on the same scientifically based content and instructional strategies and materials new teachers will be expected to use in schools. Principals must know how to see whether good literacy practices are happening in their classrooms. Parents and guardians must be shown how to support their children in ways that build on what happens in schools. And who gets to attend a summer camp or after-school program must be coordinated in such a way as to meet the needs of our most vulnerable first. Importantly, the legislation says the summer program is summer learning camp, not summer school. These programs should be lively, fun, energetic, and joyous, as well as rigorous.
Most importantly, every decision must consider quality. The state was careful to include standards for literacy in the bill that are aligned with research that backs good practice. But it will take a serious examination of schools, districts, universities, nonprofits, and others who will do this work to ensure that science and quality are at the forefront of the work. It will take follow-up and evaluation and redirection where needed.
When we begin to see the impact of the legislation, more citizens and communities will be inspired to step up and support the work. We will find more and more children ready for the workforce or higher education, and they will be happier and healthier as well. Let’s strive for that day.
Dr. Ellen McIntyre is dean of the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.