Lee administration details $100M literacy initiative

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is detailing its $100 million literacy initiative called Reading 360.

Here’s the release from the state Education Department:

Nashville, TN—Today, the Tennessee Department of Education released details on a new $100 million statewide initiative, “Reading 360,” to ensure Tennessee districts, teachers, and families are equipped with tools and resources to help students read on grade level by third grade.

To help support literacy development in Tennessee, the state will leverage approximately $60 million of one-time federal COVID-19 relief funding and $40 million in federal grant funding to immediately launch Reading 360 and invest in optional reading resources and supports at no cost to the state or districts.

Reading 360 will provide optional grants and resources to help more Tennessee students develop strong phonics-based reading skills by supporting districts, teachers, and families.

“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,” said Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. “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.”

“In the last decade, Tennessee has done remarkable work to increase expectations for student learning and to improve outcomes for our kids. Now, we are uniquely positioned to tackle literacy with urgency and can do so from all sides,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “Our state has a golden opportunity to lead the nation in literacy, and most importantly, accelerate progress for our students.”

Reading is the foundation to all learning and reading proficiently by third grade is a critical milestone for every student. Before the pandemic, only one third of third graders in Tennessee had met expectations in English Language Arts (ELA), the best standardized proxy for reading achievement. Our state has not yet comprehensively and effectively addressed this challenge, and after a year disrupted by COVID-19, school building closures and virtual learning, the stakes are higher than ever for our students.

Through optional grants to districts, students and families will have access to tutoring and online supports to help develop foundational skills in literacy. Tennessee educators will have access to free training and professional development, phonics kits and materials to use in their classrooms, and stipends for training. Districts will have access to a suite of tools and resources to support their teachers and schools in implementing strong reading instruction for all students.

Tennessee has led the nation in academic gains for students over the past decade, and most recently in the K-12 crisis response to COVID-19. Tennessee is now poised not just to protect students, teachers, and schools in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic, but to accelerate student learning further and faster than ever before.

Lee and Sexton talk early childhood reading

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters following on Dec. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee and House Speaker Cameron Sexton toured Warner Arts Magnet Elementary School in East Nashville last week as a plan to spend nearly $70 million on early childhood reading initiatives has received some pushback by education groups.

As reported by Chalkbeat Tennessee, concerns include that the program is being rushed out and that it would add diagnostic testing for children starting in kindergarten.

Lee and Sexton discussed the reading initiative with The Tennessee Journal following the visit to the school. Here’s what they had to say:

Government moves very slowly a lot of the time. People get to used to that, so when there’s a desire to move in an expeditious way you find pushback. But I think, by and large, people know it’s time for us to do this. — Lee.

LEE: Literacy is the most important thing we can do in education, and early literacy will reap the rewards of that for generations to come if we get it right. And if we don’t get it right in literacy, all of the rest of our investment in education will fall short. This approach is data-driven, it is modeled in large part after approaches that are working other places in the country. And it’s just an investment in preparing teachers, getting them the right information and the right equipment needed, and then focusing on those kids and the outcomes that come through literacy. So we’re excited about what’s to come there.

SEXTON: We are in total agreement with Gov. Lee in putting the focus on the literacy problem that we have in the state of Tennessee. We’ve done a great job with the GIVE Act and Tennessee Promise and Reconnect, in really helping people have the opportunity. Now we’re refocusing back on the lower grades in school, where it really does matter what happens. And so we’re very hopeful and appreciate the huge investment that he put into that. And what I will say is, it’s great to know that we have a commissioner and a governor who want to get back to the phonics and get back to the basics of things that we know that work. And we’re looking forward to really having Tennessee move in light years like we have over the years. But really, expand and really grow exponentially in our reading proficiency.

It’s great to know that we have a commissioner and a governor who want to get back to the phonics and get back to the basics of things that we know that work. — Sexton.

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