Press Release

Tennessee is widely regarded as a leader in education, but we have a reading problem. Literacy rates have stagnated and, in some cases, declined over the past decade for students with the lowest levels of proficiency. The evidence is clear that if students are not reading proficiently by the third grade, chances increase that they will struggle academically and drop out of high school. Because of what’s at stake, Governor Bill Lee’s announcement to significantly invest in literacy is a step in the right direction. The question is: Do we truly believe that every child can and must learn to read? Fortunately, the Governor has answered with an emphatic “yes.”

Part of why Tennessee has a reading problem is a theory that has prevailed in too many classrooms: reading will come naturally if students are provided opportunities to practice and are motivated enough to learn.

This notion is simply untrue. Reading, unlike talking and crawling, does not come naturally. It requires explicit and systematic instruction, based on the science of how our brains work, that builds from simplistic to more complex skills. And children learn to become good readers when they pull from background knowledge in an array of subjects, including mathematics, the arts, history, and sciences and make meaning from what they read.

Learning to read is a fundamental human right. The proposed literacy legislation, HB 2229, that is before the Tennessee General Assembly, helps to defend that right for Tennessee’s children. We know we have complex work to do when, in 2019, less than half of all third graders from middle- and upper-income households read proficiently, while just 1 in 5 third graders from low-income backgrounds or of color were reading on grade level.

Importantly, the legislation is an ambitious attempt to embed evidence-based literacy strategies across the education continuum – from educator preparation programs to professional development and support, so that children learn based on “the science of reading.”
This approach recognizes that vocabulary and background knowledge are essential, and that phonics, as the cornerstone of developing and advancing readers, can mitigate errors in reading before they appear in spelling and writing. Extensive research, backed up by our experiences in the classroom, demonstrate that all kids need it, and many won’t read accurately and fluently without it.

We’re heartened that HB 2229 calls for landscape and coursework analyses to develop a blueprint for teacher training and curricular supports. Additionally, the commitment to providing high-quality materials to teachers who undergo reading training is laudable.

Reading instruction is one of the most complex and important tasks our schools undertake, and poverty should not be destiny when it comes to reading well. But Tennessee must acknowledge that, today, if you are low-income, or a student of color, your chances of reading proficiently by third grade are far too low, with long-term consequences on lifetime earnings and economic mobility. Indeed, nationally, we see the literacy crisis poignantly in our prisons, where a third of incarcerated individuals are functioning at the lowest literacy levels.

Addressing Tennessee’s reading challenge requires political courage and long-term commitment. We urge our legislators and education leaders to support the Governor’s efforts to improve reading and literacy instruction and to ensure that our teachers have the necessary supports and training. The question remains: will we admire the problem of low levels of literacy, or will we solve it?

This op-ed was originally published by The Tennessean

Gini Pupo-Walker is the state director for The Education Trust in Tennessee and a school board member in Metro Nashville Public Schools

Tameka H. Marshall is a National Board-certified teacher in literacy and teaches third grade at Norman Binkley Elementary School in Metro Nashville Davidson County. She is also a board member for the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance, TECA.