Tennessee Meets Pandemic with Summer Learning Camps, Phonics, Testing

Covid education package emerges from special legislative session
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee answers questions after he spoke to a joint session of the legislature at the start of a special session on education, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Nashville.

With President Biden’s signing of the American Rescue Plan, state policymakers are suddenly facing the question of how best to spend billions of dollars in funding for schools. Tennessee got a head start on the process when Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, convened a special legislative session in the third week of January to help his state’s K-12 education system recover from the Covid-19 crisis. The comprehensive Covid education package that emerged from the session may be a model for other states.

The Tennessee legislature’s first step was to address learning loss.

This summer and next, Tennessee schools will offer all K-8 students multiple weeks of learning camps focused on English and math, providing needed additional instructional time to help students get back on track. The state also is supporting expanded tutoring programs to help school districts, parents, and community organizations combat learning loss. We know that if done well, tutoring can impact student learning significantly.

At the same time, opportunities to accelerate learning will be available through after-school programming and summer enrichment programs.

During the session, Tennessee lawmakers approved legislation requiring that all early literacy instruction be grounded in phonics and current and future teachers must receive training on research-based foundational skills, legislation that the organization I lead, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, and our partners have long worked to pass. With 65 percent of the nation’s 4th graders not proficient in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, helping more young Tennesseans learn to read and write well would be a game-changer.

Tennessee lawmakers voted to proceed with statewide spring standardized testing but to give flexibility on accountability. Teachers will be given a choice of whether to include this year’s test results in their next annual evaluations, and schools and districts will not face accountability if at least 80 percent of students take the assessment. The 2021 assessment data will provide a baseline useful for measuring the impact of the learning recovery efforts. Several weeks later, the U.S. Education Department announced it would not issue blanket waivers for statewide assessments.

While Republicans hold super majorities in both Tennessee legislative chambers, the legislation attracted support from both sides of the aisle, including $87 million in funding for the learning loss measures and roughly $100 million for literacy efforts, paid for with federal Covid relief funds, the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Family reserves, and other federal funding sources.

SCORE and other Tennessee advocacy organizations played a key role in building support for the legislative initiative, publishing a series of Covid-19 Impact Memos  and helping to build consensus among policymakers, educators, families, and community leaders that learning loss was a serious threat, that the state needed to act decisively to help students recover, and that statewide assessments would provide a valuable roadmap to recovery. The early literacy component of the legislation had been years in the making.

Excellent implementation at the state and local levels will be the key to the success of Tennessee’s new laws, and there is much to do in a short time. The state must quickly give districts guidance on the summer learning programs and set rigorous selection criteria and organize training for the tutoring corps. Districts must create summer learning programs that are high quality and convince parents of the benefits of sending their children. And state and district leaders must collaborate on how to incentivize Tennessee’s best teachers to teach this summer.

But we are optimistic that the state legislature’s quick policy start will help position Tennessee students to rebound from the impact of Covid-19 and stay on the path to academic success.

David Mansouri is president and CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) in Nashville, Tennessee. A version of this post originally appeared at FutureEd.

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