The Tennessee Department of Education introduced the Reading 360 initiative this summer, a comprehensive literacy program that a Metro Nashville Public Schools official said came at just the right time.
MNPS Director of Elementary Literacy Aliya Washington said the timing of the statewide initiative, designed to improve literacy through a combination of educational materials for families and trainings for teachers, was just perfect for MNPS’ own launch of its new Literacy Reimagined curriculum in the fall.
“Reading 360 gives teachers the opportunity to learn about current research at the same time as they learn about their new curriculum,” Washington said. “We feel like it’s very aligned with the mission and vision of Literacy Reimagined.”
According to the TDOE, previous statewide literacy programs were overly broad and did not impact statewide results over the past seven years.
Despite two major efforts since 2013, literacy among the state’s fourth grade students remained roughly unchanged over seven years, with a little more than 30% of students consistently behind grade level.
Washington said she thinks Reading 360 can accomplish what it promises if schools can capitalize on the effort with good, strong standards going into the new school year.
And with the Literacy Reimagined curriculum, Washington said MNPS is in a great place to take advantage of it.
Literacy Reimagined is a new K-12 curriculum focusing on strong, authentic learning materials picked by educators and plenty of support for teachers and students.
The program was piloted in the 2020-21 school year, with excellent feedback from teachers, Washington said.
Wit and Wisdom, the comprehensive curriculum that will be used for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, will be particularly important, Washington said. She said research has demonstrated that what students learn through the end of third grade has massive implications for their future success, and even physical health.
The TDOE notes in its Reading 360 introductory materials that missing literacy milestones in third grade makes catching up difficult and that students who fall behind in third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. They also suffer higher rates of poverty and are less likely to seek out or keep up with necessary medical treatments, among other problems.
Washington said the reason for that is that the skills taught in those years are the foundation for learning English. Those include understandings of what sounds are used in the English language and how words and sentences are structured and formed.
If you learn those concepts, later concepts should be readily achievable. If not, Washington said, it can be difficult to catch up while learning new material at the same time. Often, she said, students who fall behind never catch up.
“To me, literacy is the critical issue of our generation. We have to get this right for our students,” she said.
As MNPS introduces its own effort to address the problem, the state initiative has provided a two-week training course to teachers, one week online and one in person, focusing on modern literacy research and the latest best practices.
Twenty-five percent of MNPS K-5 teachers have opted in to take the course over the summer, Washington said, without any pressure from MNPS to do so. School officials offered the program to teachers multiple times but did not require participation because it calls for a teacher working for two unanticipated weeks during the summer.
That said, Washington said that roughly 500 K-5 teachers committed to taking the course right away, with more teachers committing to taking it during the school year should it remain available from the state. Statewide, the Tennessee Department of Education said over 11,000 teachers will have been trained.
She said it’s a great response given the requirement of the course to attend a week of in-person professional development.
”For them to give up a full week of their summer to come to in-person learning here towards the end of a pandemic, it just says a lot about the commitment of our teachers and their dedication,” Washington said.
For students and families, the program also provides literacy materials focused on phonics called Decodables, which Washington said directly address the fundamental skills students are meant to understand by the time they leave third grade.
Families can order free copies of the Decodables from the Department of Education.
With the new tools, training and curriculum, Washington said things are looking up for literacy education. But they’ll still need some help from the community to ensure their efforts have impact.
”We know that we need (parents’) help. We know that we need the help of every single community member,” she said.