Tennessee Leads the Way!

Image from governorsfoundation.org

Like so many states, Tennessee is concerned about the “COVID Slide,” the estimated learning loss for students from the pandemic’s school closures and disruptions. Their Department of Education recently released data that projects an estimated 50% decrease in proficiency rates in 3rd grade reading and a projected 65% decrease in proficiency in math. This is about 2.5 times higher than the learning loss students can experience during a normal summer break” [governorsfoundation.org].

Such data is not news, but Tennessee’s approach to this harsh reality is news. The Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation [GELF] addresses this problem: “The mission of Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation is to strengthen early literacy in Tennessee. Our vision is a Tennessee where all children have access to the resources, guidance and support they need to become lifelong learners” [tn.gov/education]. In January of 2021, GELF, in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education, “announced a statewide rollout of Ready4K, a research-based text messaging program to help parents support their students in learning at home” [Ibid.]. Their research confirmed that 97% of parents had smart phones and texted [Ibid.]140,000 families with children enrolled in pre-K through third grade received, at no charge, “three weekly text messages with facts, easy tips, and activities on how to help each child learn and grow by building on existing family routines. Text messages match each child’s age, with simple, engaging facts and suggestions for building on existing daily routines, such as getting dressed, bath time, or preparing a meal” [Ibid.]. 

“’Tennessee is taking a leadership role in providing families with accessible, evidence-based family engagement text messages to help foster child development and bridge the gap between home and school during a time of unprecedented challenges,’ said Ben York, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Ready4K. ‘With more than 15 million children in the U.S. living without adequate internet access or devices, the use of texting addresses the country’s digital divide and enables even the hardest-to-reach parents to access high-quality information and resources for their children’” [Ibid.]. 

An evidence-based program, Ready4K is continuously being evaluated and improved through ongoing partnerships at Stanford, Brown and Notre Dame universities. It “has been shown to increase family engagement at home and school and increase child learning by 2-3 months over the course of a school year” [Ibid.]. 

Last week GELF announced its second year of Its K-3 Book Delivery program. Partnering with Scholastic Library Publishing, it will deliver half a million books to teachers and students all over Tennessee, including to every first grader in the state. The high-quality and age-appropriate books will be delivered directly to homes at no charge [businesswire.com]. Encouraging students to read through the summer improves their literacy and reduces learning loss.

Participants agree. A survey by GELF showed a positive response to the program from caregivers, teachers, and students of 94-97% [Ibid.]. 

This program builds on Dolly Parton’s incredible leadership for childhood literacy. “Since 1995, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program has delivered meticulously chosen, personalized, age-appropriate books every month to children up to five years old — all free of charge” [rollingstone.com]. Initially a very local program, it kept expanding and, by February of 2021, had distributed nearly 155 million books [Ibid.]. Now the state of Tennessee is following her lead.

The pandemic has brought about lots of handwringing about learning loss, and I myself have written about it often enough. Here, though, is meaningful good news. Here is a state, one not necessarily known nationwide for leadership in education, that offers a concrete solution to address the COVID slide. Their leadership makes me hopeful for the children of Tennessee. Now may other states follow suit, developing programs like these or their own alternatives, so that our students catch up and become literate adults!