Tennessee schools have gotten a lot of negative coverage lately. But they’re also the scene of hugely important positive developments that no one is talking about.
You’ve probably seen the headlines: A school board in one Tennessee county voted unanimously to remove Maus from its eighth-grade curriculum. A right-wing parent group in another challenged thirty-one books used in the elementary grades. The legislature recently barred schools from teaching concepts like “one race or sex is inherently superior to another.” And so on.
Journalists, and the general public, tend to focus on conflict and drama. And for those who lean left, as I do, it can be natural to react to events like those in Tennessee with outrage. But heaping scorn on people who view the world differently rarely leads to positive change.
“With each op-ed from another coastal publication, Tennessee becomes more alienated, and our public officials dig their heels in deeper,” observed one McMinn County resident who—like many on the coasts—viewed the removal of Maus with dismay.
Plus, there’s more good stuff happening in Tennessee classrooms than news reports would lead you to believe. In a quiet revolution, districts throughout the state have been revamping their approach to literacy instruction to ensure that it works for all students—not just those who would thrive no matter what. If other states want to boost reading scores and other academic outcomes for their most vulnerable children, they would be wise to take a close look at Tennessee’s efforts.
As in the United States generally, only about a third of Tennessee students score proficient or above on national reading tests, and students from wealthier families perform much better than others. A basic reason is that the standard approach to reading instruction conflicts with scientific evidence.
That applies to both aspects of reading: deciphering words and understanding them. Evidence shows that the most reliable way to teach kids to decipher, or “decode,” words is by systematically covering a set of foundational skills including phonics. Very few teachers have been equipped to do that.
With reading comprehension, the prevailing approach is to have kids master supposed skills like “finding the main” idea, using texts on a random variety of topics. But evidence from cognitive science indicates that comprehension depends primarily on knowledge, either of the topic or of academic vocabulary in general. The subjects that could build that kind of knowledge—social studies, science, and the arts—have been squeezed out of the curriculum to make more time for practicing largely illusory comprehension skills.
If students from more affluent families struggle with decoding, they often get tutoring. And children from more educated families—who, in our society, are usually wealthier—are less likely to have comprehension problems because they pick up academic knowledge and vocabulary at home. But other kids rely on school for these things, and most schools haven’t been providing them effectively.
Tennessee’s ambitious effort
Tennessee is part of a network of thirteen states working to address this situation under the aegis of the Council of Chief State School Officers. And Tennessee’s efforts have been among the most ambitious.
On the decoding side, the state has used $100 million in federal funds to launch a program called Reading 360. A law passed in early 2021 requires schools to use evidence-based reading instruction and test all students for decoding difficulties three times a year in kindergarten through third grade, providing remediation for those who need it. The department of education has made one of the approved screening tests available for free.
Last summer the department provided two weeks of training in foundational literacy skills to 10,000 teachers in kindergarten through fifth grade, giving each a $1,000 stipend. Afterwards, 98 percent reported they felt equipped to teach reading more effectively. This summer the department plans to do the same with another 10,000 elementary teachers, along with 7,000 at the secondary level. In addition, ninety-eight of Tennessee’s 147 school districts participate in networks focused on implementing the new approach to decoding instruction.
The department is also working with schools of education to revamp training for prospective reading teachers, as required by the legislation. But because literacy approaches that conflict with science are deeply entrenched in ed schools, that could take a while.
According to Lisa Coons, the state’s chief academic officer, Tennessee is also investing in “empowering families” with regard to literacy. The department is distributing videos of read-alouds and book packs to be used at home and encouraging districts to host events where families can learn about the importance of foundational literacy skills.
On the comprehension side, the focus has been on encouraging school districts to adopt literacy curricula that go beyond comprehension skills to build academic knowledge by diving deeply into topics in history and science. That effort was spearheaded by a local education nonprofit called SCORE five years ago, but the state has expanded it dramatically. At this point, Coons says, “virtually the entire state” is using one of several literacy curricula deemed “high quality” by the state textbook commission. In addition, she says, at least 80 percent of districts participate in a network that enables them to learn from each other’s experience or are partnering with an outside organization that helps with implementation.
Given how firmly ensconced the skills-focused approach to comprehension is throughout the country, this rapid uptake of a radically different kind of curriculum is nothing short of extraordinary. American school districts have a good deal of autonomy in choosing curriculum, so states generally need to rely on incentives and persuasion. Tennessee has clearly worked hard to help district officials and educators understand the need for change.
Obstacles to progress remain
Still, there are challenges. One stems from the disconnect between the knowledge built by any particular curriculum and the knowledge assumed on a standardized reading test—which, by design, is not tied to any particular body of knowledge. Students might know a lot about ancient civilizations and the human digestive system, but the test passage might be on the Inuit. Eventually, a knowledge-building curriculum can instill the critical mass of academic vocabulary that would enable students to understand any grade-level text, but it could take years for that to happen. A district leader might recognize all that but still get nervous about whether students will pass the state test.
The other significant challenge in Tennessee is the highly publicized pushback against texts used in a couple of knowledge-building curricula. Some complaints have focused on sensitive aspects of American history, while others have centered on perceived vulgar language or sexual content. While only two Tennessee counties have been the focus of media attention so far—McMinn, where Maus was removed, and Williamson, where thirty-one books were challenged—the trend appears to be spreading.
Despite all the publicity, the complaints could be coming from just a few loud parents. A committee in Williamson County that investigated challenges to the elementary curriculum there noted that—in a district with 17,000 students in kindergarten through fifth grade—it had received complaints from just thirty-seven people, twenty-three of whom didn’t have children in the county’s elementary schools. (The committee removed only one of the books that were challenged.)
A Williamson County second-grade teacher, who also has children in the county schools, told me she has had no complaints about the curriculum at that grade level, which includes the civil rights unit that has been the prime target of activists. On their own initiative, though, she and other second-grade teachers at her school did crop out the N-word from a Norman Rockwell painting that is part of the curriculum.
The teacher, who prefers to remain anonymous, doesn’t see the district backing away from a curriculum they’ve invested in so heavily. And while she has her own complaints about the curriculum, called Wit & Wisdom, they’re about things like time constraints and overly ambitious writing expectations. She also says that with only four topics during the school year, the content can be repetitive and kids sometimes get bored.
But to her surprise, she loves teaching phonics—for which she uses a different curriculum—and she’s seen at least one struggling reader make dramatic progress. She’s also heard that kids in the upper elementary grades at her school are having amazing discussions and are more enthusiastic about reading than ever before. I’ve found that other Tennessee teachers have had similar experiences. So did a “school tour” of the state conducted by the Knowledge Matters Campaign.
Even if the vast majority of Tennessee teachers and parents are happy with the new curricula, the book challenges from a minority can create headaches for school officials—and they could lead some districts to revert to their old methods, with potentially dire consequences for students.
One solution could be for districts to involve the entire community, including parents and school board members, in the process of adopting a curriculum, to ensure it accords with local values. Currently, board members need to approve the choice, but they generally just rubber-stamp a decision made by a committee of educators. If only a few parents find a book objectionable, the best course of action might be to advise them to invoke the “opt-out” policy in place in most Tennessee school districts, which allow students to read an alternative text.
Another possibility would be for developers of the two curricula that have been challenged—both of which cover only four topics throughout the school year—to come up with a fifth unit as an alternative. That could be a unit on the same topic but with texts that are less likely to be found objectionable—perhaps Elie Wiesel’s Night instead of Maus in a unit on the Holocaust—or it could be an additional topic.
It would also help if journalists and commentators could take their eyes off the shiny objects of school board face-offs and spend more time covering the remarkable and promising changes occurring in classrooms throughout Tennessee. They may be less dramatic, but in the long run, they’re likely to be far more important—if they’re allowed to continue.
Editor’s note: This was first published by Forbes.