How Tennessee’s reading strategy will move students forward

Published 9:26 am Friday, March 10, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Serving as Tennessee’s Governor has been one of the great honors of my life, but the one role that tops it all is being the father of four wonderful children. I cherished being involved in every aspect of their education and saw how each of them needed strong reading skills to succeed in school and in life beyond the classroom.
As a parent and the husband of a teacher, I believe literacy is a critical life skill worth investing in.
Today, only 1 in 3 students in Tennessee and across the country achieve reading proficiency by third grade. We know kindergarten through third grade is a crucial phase of education: by fourth grade, students shift from learning to read to reading to learn.
If a student cannot read on grade level by third grade, they are four times less likely to graduate from high school and will have significantly lower economic and health outcomes as adults.
How we have moved the needle on education
Across the nation in 2020, literacy challenges were compounded by months out of the classroom. Tennessee was one of the first states to safely return to school, but we knew more work was needed to halt learning loss and help our children catch up.
That’s why, in 2021, I called a special session and worked with the General Assembly to pass the first meaningful student academic acceleration measures in the nation. Working together – with Tennessee parents and teachers – we passed bipartisan legislation that implemented a comprehensive K-3 literacy strategy for public schools across Tennessee.
Thanks to our swift action, Tennessee students now have access to nation-leading tutoring and summer school programs to help them achieve reading proficiency. We hired and empowered more teachers to use proven phonics-based instruction where students learn to read by sounding out words, syllable by syllable. And we rolled out regular reading screener tests, so teachers and parents can follow their students’ progress.
These locally driven plans start in kindergarten and put in place extra supports, so parents and teachers can determine the right pathway based on the unique needs of each student.
Under our law, a third grader struggling with reading will not simply be passed on or “socially promoted.” Instead, that child will receive additional strong support, such as free tutoring, summer camps or options for re-testing. Students who are still learning English or living with a disability will receive an alternative suite of interventions. Contrary to what critics will say, Tennessee’s reading success plan is about moving kids forward, not holding them back.
Tutoring is helping children’s reading gains
Tennessee’s literacy strategy strengthens proven, successful models seen across the country. For example, in Arizona and Florida, test-based reading standards led to remarkable achievement gains, and just one decade after Mississippi implemented literacy benchmarks, the state’s fourth grade reading scores jumped from 49th in the country to 29th.
In the Volunteer State, early results show our interventions are already making a difference. We are moving further, faster.
In the first Tennessee school districts to adopt high-dosage tutoring, students saw double-digit gains in reading. Meeting with a tutor in a small group just two or three times a week adds the equivalent of 19 weeks of extra schooling over a year. Over the next three years, the Tennessee Accelerating Literacy and Learning Corps will provide 500 extra hours of hands-on, direct support to 150,000 students.
In 2021, more than 120,000 students across Tennessee signed up for our new summer learning camps. In one summer, students saw a measurable jump in reading abilities, with the greatest gains for younger elementary students.
Three-quarters of Tennessee districts have seen reading scores improve since we changed our approach to literacy education.
Students need to read to succeed
This year, to continue our progress, I’m proposing an additional $70 million investment in Tennessee’s K-3 literacy programs, along with legislation to expand summer learning opportunities to rising kindergarteners.
Our goal is clear – ensure every Tennessee child is a proficient reader by the time they reach fourth grade. We know what works and we must keep moving forward.
Students need to read to succeed. If we stay the course together, our K-3 reading success plan will empower young Tennesseans for generations to come.
(Bill Lee is a seventh-generation Tennessean and serves as the 50th Governor of Tennessee.)

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox