Vesia Wilson-Hawkins

In the Last Decade, A Lot Has Happened in Tennessee Education, Not Much Has Changed

In the 2018 audio documentary Hard Words, Emily Hanford shattered the age-old phonics versus whole language debate with cutting scientific evidence that leaves little room to doubt that phonics is to reading what atoms are to every-thing. Central to Hanford’s report and the resulting national discourse is the failure of colleges of education to prepare future teachers on how to teach reading.

At a Loss for Words released August 2019 is a follow-up to last year’s groundbreaking work on the science of reading and delves into the real deal behind go-to reading tactics and curricula that have been taught in American schools for decades despite its ineffectiveness for most students. Hanford goes in-depth on Ken Goodman’s fifty-year-old reading instruction referred to as the three-cueing system, or MSV (meaning, sentence structure, visual cues), which is everything but the actual decoding of words. Goodman believes that as long as the reader understands a sentence’s intention, even though words are missed or misidentified (miscues), the child is, in fact, reading.

At a Loss, like its predecessor Hard Words, grabs educators, parents and education advocates by the throats forcing some to reflect on one’s own reading foundation and others to reckon with their role in educational malpractice. For example, immediately after reading the article version of At a Loss for Words, a friend called to say he was mortified to learn about the anti-scientific literacy curricula pervasive in Nashville’s district for decades, and most specifically during his school board tenure. This led to a spirited discussion about teacher preparation which shifted to an exchange about the failure of Tennessee colleges of education, punctuated by a reference to an article that is both ahead of its time and reads like it was written yesterday.

Tennessee: Been There, Still Doing That

In a Business Tennessee magazine article The First “R”July 2004, Drew Ruble writes, “[o]ur teachers are not trained to teach reading, and it shows” then illustrates the point by laying out bleak data around literacy in Tennessee:

If the correlation between reading scores and incarceration is legitimate, Tennessee will need lots of mortar and bars in coming years. More than seventy percent of fourth-grade students in Tennessee read below grade level. Forty percent of public school students in Tennessee eventually drop out, a rate 10 percentage points higher than the national average. More than half of adults rank in the lower two quartiles of a five-tier literacy scale.

In the article, Ruble interviews higher education presidents and deans, then-director of schools Dr. Pedro Garcia (deceased), highly-regarded Nashville leader Nelson Andrews (deceased), former Peabody College professor Dr. James Guthrie, agency heads and a state legislator, all of whom agreed, at varying degrees, that colleges of education are in large part responsible for the literacy crisis. In the space between former MTSU president Sydney McPhee’s, “I wouldn’t call it a crisis” and Dr. James Guthrie’s call for canceling colleges of ed altogether is a clear indication that something needed to happen but a snowball had a better chance of hanging out in hell before higher education would make a move.

There’s a lot of resistance to any kind of change in higher education, and it’s significant resistance. Perhaps if we can provide more money to colleges of education and at the same time we require improvements, we might get improvements. – State Sen. Randy McNally, Chair of Senate Education Committee (currently Lt. Gov.)

Interestingly, so much has happened in the fifteen years since the article, yet little has changed. In 2004, former Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen was in his second year as governor and up to that point had not “made any meaningful difference in the lives of children” according to Ruble. He continues with:

One large obstacle to reform lies in Bredesen’s cozy relationship with the education establishment — hardly a recipe for reform. The teachers union and higher education forces represent a huge chunk of the democratic voter base uder whose tent Bredesen has been only too willing to appear.

Like a Lion

Bredesen’s second term as governor turned Tennessee’s K-12 education system on its ear. He made history in 2008 by adopting rigorous graduation requirements through the Tennessee Diploma Project. In 2010, Bredesen capitalized on his “cozy relationship” with unions and heralded an unprecedented collaborative effort to receive federal dollars under President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

It should go without saying that winning Race to the Top dollars changed the way Tennessee did education. Tennessee’s history-making First To The Top Act shifted the power dynamic of local unions and among other things created a state-run school district for the state’s lowest-performing schools, innovation zone inside districts, robust accountability system, expansion of alternative teacher licensure programs and plan to  increase efforts in reviewing the “effectiveness of teacher preparation programs.” 

The More Things Change…

Despite these reforms, massive in number and breadth, still, 68 percent of today’s third-graders read below grade level, a decrease of only five to six percent in the fifteen years since Ruble’s article. Further, only 35.8% of Tennessee graduates are considered “ready” for postsecondary education or career based on the Ready Graduate indicator as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). 

State law requires the State Board of Education to publish a report card on teacher preparation programs, traditional and alternative, that evaluates placement and retention rates, licensure exam performance, and teacher effect data from standardized test growth data. Though there are few schools with top scores, several of the programs with the most effective teachers are actually alternative licensure programs. However, missing from the report is how well (or if) these programs teach teachers how to teach. Or we could just look at the rate of increase in reading scores over fifteen years.

Silver Linings

Though Tennessee’s reading outcomes are nothing to brag about, there’s hope in recent efforts to get early readers and new teachers on track. The Tennessee Department of Education framework for literacy is rooted in research and aligns with the current discourse around explicit phonics instruction. YES!

Teachers should provide explicit and systematic instruction on foundational skills, such as: print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, word composition, and fluency.

Examples of this reading instruction can be found in Tennessee counties and Jackson-Madison County through their use of Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) which teaches skills in reading, writing, listening, and speaking while building vocabulary and knowledge from various subjects.

But how do we know if the teachers responsible for delivering this amazing curriculum is adequately prepared to do so? The answer to that question is about as clear now as it was fifteen years ago. The State Board’s Educator Preparation Report Card is helpful but does not prioritize reading instruction.

On the horizon is a promising new partnership between Middle Tennessee State University and State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) that will be focused on innovation and excellence in teacher preparation. SCORE is new to the higher education space but brings with it a decade of stellar work in K-12 and MTSU, one of the state’s top producers of new teachers, is fortunate to get in on the ground floor. I expect to see nothing short of excellence from this partnership. Maybe a large slate of reading skills courses and expert guest lecturers (say, Emily Hanford?) will be added to the course catalog (hint, wink).

Maybe More Gray Than Silver

Reading Ruble’s article sent me into some kind of weird dream space where you’re moving but not going anywhere. Bredesen’s administration implemented and set in motion hard-hitting change, yet there is little difference between today’s literacy crisis and 2004’s. And, as far as I can tell, we have yet to answer Ruble’s question:

“In light of such sobering statistics, it would seem reasonable that the top priority of Tennessee’s education schools would be to train their students to effectively teach reading. So, is it?”


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