(The Center Square) – Tennessee House Republicans have said childhood literacy is a top priority for 2021, but one literacy initiative endorsed by a drafter of Common Core standards and designed to encourage 40 school districts to comply with state standards is on track to be implemented before lawmakers return to Nashville.
The Tennessee Department of Education's (TDOE) Comprehensive Literacy State Development program is designed to raise literacy achievement in 40 underserved school districts. It is funded by a $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to be distributed over five years.
“What we all know is that we need to get started right away on addressing the gaps that have been created, the learning loss, from months away from the classroom,” Gov. Bill Lee said of the program in a recent news conference. “I think the legislature and the department are grateful for the federal funds that will allow us to bridge the gap until we get legislation in place.”
According to the TDOE grant proposal, the program will establish regional networks to provide instructional support for 40 underserved school districts and eight “mentor districts” across the state. The networks will host monthly webinars and visits to school districts to teach and discuss adherence to a state-provided instructional practice guide. The guide included with the department’s grant application contained 13 pages of content from Student Achievement Partners, an organization founded and run by writers of Common Core standards.
With the grant proposal, the TDOE submitted a letter of support from David and Merideth Liben, both on staff at Student Achievement Partners. David Liben's staff biography notes that he played a key role in drafting Common Core English Language Acquisition standards.
The program is slated to be implemented before the Tennessee Legislature returns in January, and rollout seems to be on track. A manager has been hired to oversee the federal grant, and the department is advertising to hire a project manager. It's also scheduled to contract vendors this month, for monthly meetings to begin by January.
Several lawmakers on the House Education Committee, however, are concerned about the TDOE moving forward with a literacy program without input from the Legislature – an issue that’s caused significant tension between the Legislature and the department and prompted multiple lawmakers to call for Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s removal.
“Our members have clearly communicated on several occasions that we want to work with Commissioner Schwinn and the department to better prepare Tennessee’s students for tomorrow,” Rep. John Ragan told The Center Square. “We need to be sure we’re aiming for the same goal, and we expect that to be a collaborative team effort.”
Schwinn has mentioned the federal grant in media briefings, a summer meeting of the House Education Committee and on a webinar with legislators, but the details and structure of the comprehensive literacy program have not been discussed extensively in public.
Ragan and eight members of the House Education Committee wrote a letter to Schwinn last month expressing concerns that the Legislature had not been sufficiently informed of the program and the program was significantly influenced by organizations and individuals closely associated with federal Common Core standards, which Tennessee has rejected.
“The grant directly mentions Common Core and Student Achievement Partners, the entity that created Common Core,” Ragan told The Center Square. “For the Tennessee Department of Education to adopt a pilot program in 48 low performing schools that we know we aren’t ever going to implement isn’t just a waste of time and valuable resources, it’s nonsensical and counter-productive to what we want to accomplish.”
Responding to legislators’ concerns, Schwinn said the program is not tied to Common Core standards, is “entirely optional” and “in no way constitutes a policy change.”
“In no way does the grant have anything to do with Common Core,” Schwinn wrote in her response to lawmakers. “That requirement is used within the grant application and subsequent competitive processes as well. Additionally, no provider, tied to Common Core or otherwise, has been selected to support administering this grant.”
In criteria for vendor selection included in the grant request, the TDOE said it will consider vendors for the program based on their ability to comply with the 29-page instructional practice guide with Student Achievement Partners content. A spokesperson for the department told The Center Square the department has updated the guide to be Tennessee specific since submitting the grant request.
“There is not a single part of this grant that is connected with Common Core, nor was it in any way used in this process,” a department spokesperson told The Center Square in an email. “The IPG rubric is built to be agnostic to state standards, so that states can make necessary changes and modifications to meet their specific state requirements, which Tennessee did.”
A copy of the updated guide provided to The Center Square by the department is identical to the last page in the original 29 page guide provide to the USDOE – simply eliminating previous content from Student Achievement Partners.
Likewise, a link in the grant request to the originally submitted instructional practice guide with Student Achievement Partners content, previously hosted on the TDOE website, has now been disabled.
A department spokesperson released the following statement:
“As we partner with our educators and communities to respond to the academic needs of our students, we remain absolutely committed to ensuring that Common Core is not, in any way, involved in the education efforts in Tennessee. We have gone above and beyond to add language in our procurements explicitly prohibiting the use of Common Core, and we continue to engage key Tennessee stakeholders in the development and review of materials to align to the needs and values of Tennesseans. We look forward to continuing critical conversations related to literacy with the legislature, incorporating their thoughts and feedback, and continuing to partner with leadership on strategies to accelerate reading profile changes in our state.”
As the Legislature prepares to reconvene, Lee said his administration is working closely with the Legislature to continue to address the literacy crisis in Tennessee.
“I personally am talking with leadership in the Legislature about the real challenges we have in education, particularly in literacy, the learning loss that we know has occurred, and how it is that we can use these short-term and currently awarded programs to compliment the broader literacy strategy that we have,” Lee said in a recent news conference. “We’ll continue to work … with the Legislature to make sure we have agreement on where we go with literacy.”