In August 2017, former Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced the Read to be Ready program with an ambitious goal of 75 percent of all third-graders reading at or above grade level in the year 2025. In response to the news, I wrote: “…in eight years Tennessee promises all but 25% of its third graders will be able to read at grade level. We are preparing for partial success of students who have yet to be born…”
Two months later, members of the Nashville education community led by then-mayor Megan Barry, then-director of schools Dr. Shawn Joseph and then-leader of the Nashville Public Education foundation Shannon Hunt, followed suit with the rollout of the Blueprint for Early Childhood Success. The Nashville Literacy Collaborative, a multi-organization effort to double the number of proficient readers by 2025 –from 25 percent to 50 percent, set the stage to effectively change the narrative for Metro Schools students. One year ago this week, nine months after the launch, the NLC refreshed their commitment to the 2025 goal after the release of TNReady scores showed an increase in ELA outcomes from 25.4 percent to 26.7 percent.
In my mind, the big hairy audacious goals failed to address the present-day crisis and offered little inspiration for the next generation. What did these lofty goals mean for two-thirds of the state’s students currently not reading at or above grade level and the same for three-fourths of Nashville’s students? Secondly, and particularly troubling, the far-reaching goals were set for students yet to be born. To wit, if you’re a new parent with plans to attend Metro Schools your child has a 50 percent chance of reading at or above grade level when she hits third grade. If you’re Black or Hispanic or poor, the number decreases by as much as 10 percent.
This was my thinking nearly two years ago with no skin in the game.
Now, it’s personal.
There was no way I could have known that the unborn of which I was so concerned about two years ago would include my own grandchild. Of course, we will do everything within our power and resources to ensure she is a power reader but classroom instruction and teacher efficacy matter. I realize the above statement gives the anti-parent crowd an entry to blame the literacy crisis on families without the information and resources to prop up their children academically. We don’t do that on this blog. Every family who sends their child to a taxpayer-funded school should comfortably expect that their child will be, at a minimum, a proficient reader.
Nashville is currently in the throes of yet another mayoral campaign season, the second in as many years, and again the literacy crisis is not sexy enough to make it to the political stage. Instead, the phrases that pay are fully-funded schools and teacher pay. Who can argue with the notions that schools with adequate resources might be more successful with students and teachers who are paid their worth are incentivized to work harder as well as have to the resources to live and work in high-priced Nashville? Not me.
However, I do believe there is plenty of room to campaign for fully funded schools which includes teacher salaries that match their worth and a minimum expectation that every child will be proficient readers.
Sadly, there have been many leadership changes since the fall of 2017 at state and local levels. At the state level, we have a new commissioner of education and recently experienced a huge hit to the 2025 goal by the de-funding of the popular and effective summer reading program. Locally, the major players responsible for the Blueprint for Early Childhood Success have changed and management of the effort has been transferred to United Way of Middle Tennessee. The only thing that has remained constant is the criminally large percentage of students not reading at grade level.
Toward that end, I expect the next mayor to latch onto and ramp up the promise of the Blueprint. While doubling the number of third-grade students reading proficient is a noble goal, on the other side is the expectation that half of the third-graders in 2025 won’t get there.
Literacy is life. (Right to Read Project agrees) Especially for children of color and in poverty.
So, I ask you, what would you do if your child had a 50 percent chance to get the tools needed to live a productive life?
In the words of Jonathan Kozol:
We are children only once; and, after those few years are gone, there is no second chance to make amends. In this respect, the consequences of unequal education has a terrible finality. Those who are denied cannot be “made whole” by a later act of government.