Leaders of Better Student Outcomes Now, including a Metro Nashville Schools Board member and advocates of school reform, used the opening of Gov. Bill Lee’s special legislative session on education to say the COVID-19 pandemic gives an opportunity to reset education goals.
“Not so long ago, Tennessee made national headlines for rapid education improvement, but our outcomes have started to stagnate in recent years, and the upheaval from the COVID pandemic is only going to make things worse,” said Tara Scarlett, president/CEO for the Scarlett Family Foundation.
A press release from Better Student Outcomes cited a parental poll conducted by SCORE, an education reform group founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist. The survey showed Tennessee parents believe the legislature should use Lee’s special session as an opportunity to fix long standing issues in Tennessee’s education system.
Data from the survey, which polled 300 parents of school age children in November, showed parents want legislators to address COVID learning loss, improve literacy rates, and ensure student access to broadband and technology, among other issues. Access to technology and broadband has created additional challenges for minority and low-income students.
“It should not have taken a pandemic to show us how critical it is to get better technology into the hands of our students,” said John Little, organizing and outreach director at Nashville PROPEL, a parent-based organization. Little is also a member of the Metro Nashville Schools Board.
Advocates are also asking for creative solutions to learning loss, such as lengthening the school year, lengthening school hours and creating individualized learning plans for each student. Typically, individual education plans are crafted only for children who qualify for special education or have a disability.
Group leaders also said they want school officials to specifically focus on literacy rates state-wide. About a third of students were reading on a grade level before the pandemic, and advocates worry this has only worsened due to the pandemic.
“This issue must be met with a serious sense of urgency. Reading is absolutely critical for our children to ever be successful in the classroom and in life,” said Sonya Thomas, executive director at Nashville PROPEL. The rate also has stalled since 2013.
Lee’s education commissioner Penny Schwinn recently announced a campaign to improve reading proficiency scores.
Group members also addressed a controversial 2011 state law on third-grade retention, championed by the governor, as a way to address COVID learning loss. Under this proposal, schools would retain third graders that fall behind in English language arts to be held back for a school year.
“First things first, we need to make sure that we’re equipped. We can’t punish children for something that’s not their fault,” said Thomas.
“We have to make sure educators have the resources they need to make sure children are successful, otherwise we’re just going to be in a rat race and holding children back because we’re not equipped to even teach reading,” she added.
Better Student Outcomes Now launched in October with support from SCORE, Memphis Lift, another parent-based organization focusing on the needs of children zoned for underperforming schools, and former Gov. Bill Haslam.