How one state is using $100M in funds to boost literacy

Tennessee's new Reading 360 program hopes to get students on a path to success by third grade.

Only 35% of third-grade students were meeting English Language Arts standards in Tennessee in 2020. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recognizing the potential for further learning loss and admitting it hadn’t “effectively addressed this challenge”, the state’s Department of Education said it will utilize $100 million in federal funds toward a new initiative called Reading 360 to try to reverse those outcomes.

Reading 360 will aim to get young students on a path to read on grade level by Grade 3 by boosting resources for schools, offering help beyond classes to kids and families and adding further professional development for educators.

“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. “Reading 360 will give critical supports to districts and educators so we can address this challenge urgently and put Tennessee’s students on the right track to grow and thrive.”

The state plans to use $60 million from COVID-19 relief funding and $40 million in federal grant funding to make Reading 360 a reality. The Department of Education said school districts will incur no costs from the program but will reap huge benefits from it. Among them will be stipend-backed training and “phonics kits and materials” for teachers, as well as tutoring for students.

“The Department of Education’s vision and support plan for early literacy improvement capitalizes on what works,” said Joey Hassell, Superintendent of Haywood County Schools. “Our students need a strong foundation in language comprehension and word recognition, and our teachers need the background and support to make it work.”

Getting students on par in reading by third grade is an important benchmark for their longterm success. Janet Ayers, president of the Ayers Foundation that serves constituents in Tennessee, noted that students who don’t hit that goal are four times more likely to drop out of high school and “run the risk of being underemployed for the rest of their lives.”

To prevent that from happening, the Tennessee Department of Education says the huge investment in literacy will provide schools with a “suite of tools and resources” as it not only tries to get students on par with reading but become one of the best in the country at building those early foundational comprehension skills.

“Our state has a golden opportunity to lead the nation in literacy, and most importantly, accelerate progress for our students,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

State leaders know that waiting any longer could have dire impacts on the youngest group of students who may be struggling to play catch up as they cope with remote and hybrid learning and other impacts from the pandemic.

“Tennessee’s literacy rates are at crisis-level lows,” said Adam Lister, president of Tennesseans for Student Success. “The life-long challenges created through reading gaps disproportionately impact Tennessee’s most marginalized students. We need a bold and urgent response to these issues if we are to chart a new path to success for hundreds of thousands of students. We must seize every opportunity to build a better future for all students across the state.”

Reading 360 should accomplish that.

“The proposal will help school districts and educator preparation programs adopt literacy instruction that is proven to work: developing foundational phonics skills, building knowledge with high-quality reading materials, and supporting current and future teachers to implement these practices,” said Sharon Roberts, Chief K-12 Impact Officer for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).

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