News from The Hill: General Assembly addresses student learning losses

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By Sen. Brian Kelsey 

The General Assembly passed major legislation last week to address unprecedented student learning losses as a result of COVID-19 related school closures and time spent away from the classroom.  

This week’s action also included passage of legislation focusing on foundational reading skills; a bill ensuring students, teachers, schools, and districts are held harmless from any negative consequences associated with 2020-2021 student assessments; and a measure providing funds to Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to increase teacher pay.

We are in unprecedented times and the pandemic has affected all of us negatively throughout our communities, but our students have been hit especially hard.

We have a whole generation of students who may have lost as much as a year’s worth of learning, and that’s simply unacceptable.

Thankfully, the Governor put forward a plan to the General Assembly to strongly address that issue and accelerate student learning.

The legislation passed during a special session on education which adjourned on Friday. 

It was the 62nd Extraordinary Session in the history of the state.Tennessee Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act — Research data estimates a 50 percent decrease in proficiency rates in 3rd grade reading and a 65 percent decrease in proficiency rates in math due to the effects of COVID-19 on student learning.Senate Bill 7002, sponsored by Sen. Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and I, helps struggling students by providing after-school learning mini-camps, learning loss bridge camps and summer learning camps beginning this summer.

It also creates the Tennessee Accelerated Literacy and Learning Corps to provide high-quality tutoring throughout the school year. 

The summer learning camps will offer a full day of instruction with a focus on English Language Arts and mathematics. Transportation and meals will be provided. The after school mini-camps, which will focus on STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading Engineering, Arts and Mathematics), will also be available to students. Both of these programs are targeted for students in grades K-4 and will only be provided for summer 2021 and summer 2022.  

The summer bridge camp is a four-week program which will begin in 2021 and every summer following for non-proficient and other priority students. The state will fully fund the learning loss remediation and student acceleration programs for all priority students who enroll and offer additional seats to other students based on availability or additional local funding. Teachers will receive at least $1,000 a week for staffing the learning loss bridge or summer learning camps, with stipends differentiated based on a variety of performance factors. 

The bill also strengthens the state’s 3rd grade reading retention policy by ensuring that students are on grade-level before being promoted to the 4th grade. It provides rigorous, and well-funded interventions for students who are behind to ensure they are caught up before beginning 4th grade.

Tennessee Literacy Success Act  — A second bill approved this week specifically targets literacy skills to get students on track in the early grades so they can become proficient readers by 3rd grade. Currently, 34% of Tennessee students are proficient or advanced readers by the time they reach 4th grade. It is critical to address this deficiency before students reach 4th grade or much of their curriculum in following grades will be incomprehensible. This is evidenced by the fact that about 27 percent of 8th graders in Tennessee meet standard English Language Arts (ELA) expectations. This suggests these students may have trouble reading and comprehending their text books.

Lack of early literacy intervention can lead students to drop out of high school and increases the likelihood that they will become incarcerated or experience difficulty and poverty as adults.   

Senate Bill 7003, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson and Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), calls for LEAs and public charter schools to use foundational literacy skills instruction with a phonics-based approach for early reading instruction. This is a method backed by research as the most effective way to teach reading to students in the early grades.  School districts will develop a Foundational Literacy Skills Plan to articulate their strategy to improve literacy outcomes for their students in a transparent manner so parents are informed and can be engaged. 

The legislation also establishes a reading screener to identify when a student needs help before third grade so they won’t fall behind. This includes help with dyslexia screening and other testing requirements.    

In addition, the bill calls for literacy training for teachers to improve the next generation of K-3 reading teachers. It requires educator preparation programs provide training on foundational literacy skills, as well as requiring K-3 teaching candidates to pass a reading instruction assessment. 

Bill ensures educators are held harmless on 2020-21 school year assessments — Teachers, schools, and school districts will be held harmless from any negative consequences associated with student assessments for the 2020-21 school year under a bill passed by the General Assembly during the special session on education. This is due to disruptive effects of COVID-19 on student learning in Tennessee. 

Senate Bill 7001, sponsored by Johnson and Sen. Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro), only allows for assessments to be used in evaluations if it results in a higher final score for the educator.  

While the legislation establishes the hold harmless provisions, the state will still require Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) testing for them to take effect.  This ensures that while stakeholders are held harmless, parents and educators are still able to access important assessment data to provide an accurate picture of where students are and what supports are needed to regain any learning that has been lost. 

Legislation provides funds to increase teacher pay — Key legislation providing funds to Local Boards of Education to increase teacher pay was approved before adjournment of the 2021 special session on education. Senate Bill 7009, sponsored by Johnson, commits more than $42.8 million to increase the salary component of the Basic Education Program (BEP) by 2 percent. These funds would provide an immediate pay increase for teachers and would be retroactive to Jan. 1. 

Appropriation of the funds address the need throughout the state to increase teachers’ salaries without putting a burden on LEA budgets by not requiring a local match to the dollars allocated. Leader Johnson expressed the intention to appropriate funds to the instructional component to the BEP in the 2021-2022 fiscal year on a recurring basis in order for Tennessee teachers to see a more substantial raise. Those funds would be included in the appropriations bill for the regular session.

These efforts follow a significant proposal by Governor Bill Lee last year to increase teacher pay. That proposal was foiled due to the effects of the pandemic on state revenues and preparation for COVID-19 response and recovery.  

Now that the special session on education has adjourned, the General Assembly has recessed until Feb. 8 when we will hear Governor Lee’s State of the State/Budget Address and begin the work of the 2021 regular session.