Memphis schools already have one tool to deal with learning loss. What’s missing is funding.

Tennessee unveils $100 million plan to help its youngest students read better

Tennessee plans to invest $100 million of one-time federal funds in phonics-based reading programs in a sweeping attack on low student literacy rates that have bedeviled the state for decades.
Calling it an “exciting moment,” Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn on Monday unveiled “Reading 360,” an array of programs to train teachers on reading instruction, provide more resources and mentoring networks to school districts, and support families to help their students read better.
The goal is to catapult third-grade reading proficiency rates from 37% to 62% by 2025 under a new campaign known as “25 by 25.” The state’s previous reading goal, set in 2016 by former Gov. Bill Haslam, was to reach 75% by 2025.
“We are saying that we are serious about this as a state,” Schwinn said of the new charge against illiteracy using federal COVID-19 relief funds and two major grants from the U.S. Department of Education.
“Now we have this one-time opportunity to invest a significant amount of money — not just in one part of the reading continuum but the entirety,” she added during an interview with Chalkbeat.
The major investment comes as Tennessee officials project a 50% drop in reading proficiency rates for third-graders because of disruptions to schooling that began with the pandemic last spring. Gov. Bill Lee also has identified literacy as one of five topics to be discussed during a special legislative session on education scheduled to begin on Jan. 19.
“We know that teaching reading is hard. It has always been hard. But it is even more so as a result of COVID,” Schwinn said.
The federal funding allows Lee’s administration to implement programs that it couldn’t convince lawmakers to pass last year as the pandemic and economy worsened and tax revenues dropped. A major component of that legislation would have set aside tens of millions of dollars to train teachers on the foundational principles of reading instruction and work with colleges and universities to retool their teacher training programs on literacy.
According to a request for proposals released in late December, the department plans to spend $8.9 million in federal funds to hire a vendor to retrain up to 11,000 educators in grades pre-K through 4 through a weeklong virtual course this spring and another week in person over the summer. Teachers would receive a $1,000 stipend after completing the training and also would receive a classroom kit with reading resources, Schwinn said.
The commissioner emphasized that all programs under Reading 360 will be optional and complement any reading legislation that lawmakers pursue this year.
“Nothing in reading 360 is mandatory,” she said. “They are about supports and resources that districts have said they need or that would be helpful to them, so we are providing options using one-time funds.”
She also said that Reading 360 has “nothing to do” with a similarly named product by Renaissance Learning, a publicly traded company that sells Accelerated Reader and Start Testing programs.
This story is developing and will be updated.

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