Tennessee Seeks New Teacher, Principal Requirements in ‘Science of Reading’

By Catherine Gewertz — February 03, 2020 5 min read
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In a move that already has the governor’s support, the Tennessee department of education is proposing major legislation that will require all current and new K-3 teachers—and those who train them—to know about evidence-based reading instruction.

The bill was filed just as Gov. Bill Lee was getting ready to deliver his State of the State address this evening. In the governor’s prepared remarks, he said he was setting aside about $70 million in his fiscal 2021 budget to support the suite of early literacy requirements.

More states are getting interested in—and instituting—requirements that their teachers have mastered reading instruction that’s solidly grounded in research. Among other things, decades of cognitive science research have shown that young students need explicit, systematic instruction in phonics to learn to decode words. And they need strong vocabulary and background knowledge to comprehend what they read. But even on a landscape of rising interest and action, the changes Tennessee is proposing are among the most comprehensive and far-reaching.

Word of these changes made its way onto social media, notably after a Jan. 21 meeting of the Tennessee Dyslexia Advisory Council, where Lisa Coons, the state’s chief of standards and materials for K-12, made a presentation. In a series of tweets, Anna Thorsen, a parent member of that council, reported that Coons said that the state will take steps to make sure that “schools follow the science of reading,” and that “cueing"—a common practice in which teachers encourage students to identify a word through context, picture, and other cues—will be “absent” from classrooms and teacher-prep programs.

Read Education Week’s special series on early reading instruction, Getting Reading Right.

Here are the highlights of the proposed legislation, as described by Coons and State Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn in an interview Monday. Schwinn said that with only one-third of the state’s 3rd graders reading on grade level, she considers strong reading instruction to be so important that this bill will be the only one the department proposes this year.

Instructional materials: literacy

Districts would have to use a state-approved, free, open-source foundational literacy curriculum aligned to the science of reading for K-2, or seek a waiver from that requirement if they can prove their own materials meet that standard. Coons noted that the state doesn’t want to discourage its “early adopters"—districts that have chosen evidence-based materials, and provided all the right supports for teachers and principals to implement them—from continuing their own successful approaches.

Instructional materials: content knowledge

Districts would be required to provide high-quality instructional materials aimed at building content knowledge. In the past, districts could “adopt” a curriculum without being required to actually use it. The proposed legislation would change that by requiring districts to use curricula from the state’s list of high-quality materials.

Shared diagnostic assessments

Districts would be required to administer the same, statewide reading diagnostic assessment in K-2. “We don’t want to wait until 3rd grade to know how our kiddos are doing,” Schwinn said. The test would be provided free of charge to districts to benchmark their students’ reading skills.

Professional development

Every teacher who teaches literacy in K-3—including special educators and some paraprofessionals—would be required to take two weeks of professional development on evidence-based reading instruction. One week would focus on the “deep foundations of evidence-based literacy instruction,” Schwinn said, and the other would cover its effective implementation in the classroom. Teachers who complete it successfully, based on the observation and judgment of their trainers, would get “early literacy” endorsements. Those who don’t would be assigned mentors to support them over the following year, and might have to repeat the training, Schwinn said.

Educator- and leader-preparation programs

Programs that prepare teachers and principals would be required to teach evidence-based reading instruction “exclusively,” Schwinn said. She and her team have been working with Mike Krause, who heads the state’s Higher Education Commission, to unify the state’s vision on early reading instruction, she said. State grants would support higher education as it shifts instruction to support aspiring teachers and principals as they learn evidence-based reading instruction, and learn how to use the state’s approved materials for reading instruction and content knowledge.


The state would be required to reevaluate its accountability model to see if it adequately supports achievement of the state’s K-3 reading goals. One area for consideration, Schwinn said, is whether the current growth model could work against districts with strong reading achievement in upper elementary, since high achievement makes it tougher to earn points based on academic growth.

Jared Myracle, the chief academic officer of the Jackson-Madison County schools, who’s been working with a network of other district leaders in Tennessee to encourage the embrace of evidence-based reading instruction, said he’s glad a statewide system is being considered in the new legislation. But everything, he said, will depend on how the new requirements—assuming they make it through the legislature and get the governor’s signature—are implemented.

If all the provisions in the bill are put into practice well, he said, “it’s hard to imagine a scenario where that doesn’t have a pretty dramatic impact on reading outcomes.”

He’s already seeing progress in his district, which has been using the Core Knowledge curriculum in K-2 for foundational reading skills and knowledge-building, and Expeditionary Learning in grades 3-5, for two full years after a pilot year. In the last two years, he said, about half of his kindergarten students have scored above average in phonemic awareness on the district’s diagnostic test in foundational reading skills. Before that, Myracle said, only about one-quarter did.

See also: “We Have a National Reading Crisis,” an essay by Myracle and two other district-level curriculum leaders.

Image via Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.