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Politics of Phonics

Politics of Phonics: How a skill becomes a law

Gov. Bill Lee fields question from the media after meeting teachers and students at Hanley Elementary on Friday, April 23, 2021, in Orange Mound. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

In the early 1980s, Gov. Lamar Alexander, son of a grade-school principal and a preschool teacher, announced a plan “to improve the teaching and learning of reading, writing, and arithmetic in Tennessee.”

Alexander’s “Basic Skills First” program established, among other reforms, a list of 1,019 reading skills and 607 math skills “a child must understand to go to high school, live in modern society and perform most jobs.”

Students were to be tested every few weeks, beginning in kindergarten, to measure their “mastery” of skills. Teachers would be awarded “merit pay” based on their students’ test scores.

Alexander’s reforms drew national attention. They helped to usher in a new era of national education standards, testing and teacher accountability led by former governors Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Alexander himself as U.S. Education Secretary and chairman of the Senate education committee.

Alexander’s focus on “basic skills” also helped to set in motion a pattern of federal and state involvement (some call it intrusion) in elementary school reading policies — especially phonics instruction — that continues today.

A new Tennessee law, proposed by Gov. Bill Lee and approved in a special legislative session in January, requires that students in grades K-3 “be taught phonics as the primary form of reading instruction.” All public school districts and charter schools are required to submit their “Foundational Literacy Skills Plan” by June 1.

The new law is one of the Lee administration’s response to the state’s lagging reading scores. Another new law will require that third-graders who flunk the state’s standardized reading test receive focused remediation or be held back beginning in 2023.

Only one in three Tennessee fourth-graders is reading “proficiently” or better, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). That number hasn’t improved since 2013, and it hasn’t risen appreciably since the national assessments began in 1992.

“Our state has not yet comprehensively and effectively addressed this challenge,” Lee said in January. “These changes to our education system will actually educate our kids better in the future than we did before the pandemic.”

“These changes” are mostly revised and repackaged versions of proposals and policies made by previous administrations.

They are based on debatable assumptions and conclusions about what kids are learning, how teachers are teaching and how reading should be taught.

They reflect an unresolved debate, and continuing political and academic disagreements, over how best to help children who are struggling to read, especially children of poverty and trauma.

They are a product of the politics of phonics — a tangled web of business and government, profit and power that has shaped and reshaped national and state reading policies time and again.

The new phonics law will impact every elementary public school, student, teacher and parent in a variety of ways in the coming months and years.

And it was approved by legislators in three days, without hearings, and without testimony from a single classroom teacher or school principal.

“Improving literacy is a priority worth more than three days of the legislature’s time,” state Rep. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) in January. “And we shouldn’t pretend that jamming through these bills without hearing testimony from a single superintendent, principal, or teacher is a good way to make public policy.”

A history of reformed reforms

U.S. President George H. Bush glanced toward his choices for two Cabinet positions during a White House press briefing, Monday, Dec. 18, 1990, in Washington. At left is former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, the President's pick for education secretary. Outgoing Illinois Rep. Lynn Martin, center, was chosen by Bush to be labor secretary. (Marcy Nighswand/AP file)
U.S. President George H. Bush glanced toward his choices for two Cabinet positions during a White House press briefing, Monday, Dec. 18, 1990, in Washington. At left is former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, the President’s pick for education secretary. Outgoing Illinois Rep. Lynn Martin, center, was chosen by Bush to be labor secretary. (Marcy Nighswand/AP file)

Tennessee governors have been remaking reading policies for four decades.

From Alexander’s “Better Schools Program” to Ned McWherter’s “21st Century Schools.”

From Don Sundquist’s version of “Reading First” to Phil Bredesen’s “First to the Top” and “Books from Birth.”

From Bill Haslam’s “Read to be Ready” to Lee’s “Reading 360.”

“When only 34 percent of Tennessee students are proficient or advanced readers by fourth grade, and that’s pre-COVID, something isn’t working and it’s time to get back to the basics,” Lee said in January.

Governors have been pushing schools back to the basics since Alexander presented a “five-year action plan to put basic skills first” in 1982.

“Existing laws have created an environment of too little, too late when it comes to helping kids before third grade,” Lee told legislators.

Governors have been focusing their efforts on third-grade since Sundquist put a reading coach in every school “to make absolutely sure that every child in Tennessee meets or exceeds reading expectations by the third grade” in 2001.

Lee’s plan includes “a third-grade reading gate, which means that we make sure students are prepared before we pass them through to the fourth grade.”

The state passed a third-grade retention law in 2011, in Haslam’s first year in office, but it was vaguely worded and rarely enforced. Lee’s “gate” ties retention directly to third-grade reading scores on annual TNReady achievement tests.

Lee’s plan establishes “a full-time tutoring corps, after school camps, learning loss bridge camps and summer learning camps.”

Haslam’s “Read to be Ready” initiative included a network of more than 250 specially trained literacy specialists to help K-2 teachers with classroom instruction, and more than 200 summer reading camps serving more than 9,000 students.

Lee’s plan promises “reading interventions and supports for students who are identified as ‘at risk’ for a significant reading deficiency … as outlined in Tennessee’s Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTI²) framework.” That includes students with dyslexia.

But according to the state’s own findings, RTI², launched in 2013 without state funding, hasn’t moved beyond ‘checkbox implementation.’ About 75 percent of Shelby County’s students qualify for the daily intervention, but only 10-15 percent are getting it.

Lee’s plan requires that students in grades K-3 “be taught phonics as the primary form of reading instruction.”

Phonics has been a primary or major focus of early elementary reading programs since the Alexander administration, and generations before that. It still is, though many debate how faithfully it is practiced, and whether it is emphasized enough in early grades.

But even before the new law was passed, the state required that K-2 reading curricula “provide explicit, systematic, sequential and evidence-based instruction of grade level foundational skills including: alphabetic principle (K), phonological awareness (K-1) phonics and word recognition (K-2)”.

“So much of our success in K-12 hinges on building better readers,” Lee told legislators in January.

As governors and presidents have demonstrated for decades, that’s easier read than done.

Reforms left and right

In January 2010, the General Assembly met in special session to approve two new education reform laws promoted by Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat.

The new laws helped Tennessee secure one of the first two Race to the Top grants, the Obama administration’s $4 billion effort to encourage states to develop their own education reform plans.

Tennessee received $500 million for its plan to tie teacher evaluations to standardized test scores, loosen restrictions on charter schools, establish the takeover Achievement School District (ASD), and prepare to adopt new Common Core standards in reading and math.

Memphis, meanwhile, was one of three cities to get a Gates Foundation grant to improve the way its schools recruited and trained teachers. The prize: $90 million.

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education announced that Tennessee had become the fastest-improving state in the history the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The state’s fourth-grade reading scores improved five points from 2011-2013. Eighth-grade reading scores increased four points.

The celebration was short-lived.

When Haslam was elected in 2010, Republicans gained control of the executive and legislative branches of state government for the first time since Reconstruction.

The state legislature’s Republican supermajority, guided by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), began making big changes in the state’s public schools.

ALEC is a political coalition of predominantly Republican state legislators, conservative philanthropies and private-sector businesses that drafts “model legislation” for state lawmakers.

ALEC’s “A-Plus Literacy Act” supports charter schools, vouchers (also called education savings accounts) and third-grade retention policies based on reading scores. It opposes collective bargaining for teachers, and local control over any state policies including education.

“The ALEC agenda is today the ‘reform’ agenda for education,” Diane Ravitch, an education historian who worked for Bush’s White House, told the Washington Post.

It also has been Tennessee’s education reform agenda since 2010. Dozens of state legislators are ALEC members, including state Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), chair of the Senate education committee, and Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis), chair of the House education committee.

Since 2010, Tennessee legislators have repealed teachers’ collective bargaining rights, removed limits on charter schools, expanded ASD’s authority, and passed (and in January strengthened) a third-grade retention policy.

Legislators also have replaced Common Core standards with (very similar) Tennessee Academic Standards, and scrapped Common Core-aligned standardized tests in favor of the annual TCAP/TNReady tests.

After rising in 2013, the state’s NAEP reading scores declined in 2015, again in 2017, and held steady in 2019.

“Beginning in 2011, Haslam and other Tennessee policymakers embarked on a path to discard the original collaborative vision of Race to the Top and instead leverage the program’s federal largess to mount the assault on public education,” wrote Will Pinkston, a Bredesen advisor and former Nashville school board member.

In 2018, a Gates-funded study by the Rand Corp. said the foundation’s efforts to improve teacher effectiveness in Memphis and two other cities “did not achieve its stated goals for students, particularly low-income minority students …”

A federal analysis came to the same conclusion about the Obama administration’s Race to the Top.

“In sum, it is not clear whether the (Race to the Top) grants influenced the policies and practices used by states or whether they improved student outcomes,” the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences concluded in 2016.

Read to be Ready, or not

After Tennessee’s NAEP reading scores declined in 2015, state Education Commissioner Candace McQueen launched a study to find out why.

Former governor Bill Haslam (in a file photo) watched as former Tennessee First Lady Crissy Haslam (in a file photo) presented a book to young Tamera Tynes and mother Sierra Tynes as part of the Books From Birth program. (The Daily News)
Former governor Bill Haslam (in a file photo) watched as former Tennessee First Lady Crissy Haslam (in a file photo) presented a book to young Tamera Tynes and mother Sierra Tynes as part of the Books From Birth program. (The Daily News)

The surprising finding: Schools were devoting too much classroom time to phonics, and not enough to reading.

“Teachers are spending time on skills, but they are rarely making the leap from decoding to reading,” the department reported in Setting the Foundation in 2016.

“At the K–2 level, classroom time in Tennessee tends to be centrally organized around phonics and other word recognition abilities. … Students learned a set of skills that they rarely had the chance to translate into the act of reading — the act of making meaning from text …

“At the 3–5 level, students spend relatively little time reading during school literacy blocks. … Lessons themselves did not push students to engage with the words on the page. Most questions asked of students focused on recall of information rather than requiring students to return to the text to examine its structure, concepts, ideas, and vocabulary.”

The study found that two other factors contributed to the state’s declining reading scores:

  1. Ten percent of Tennessee third graders have missed almost half a year of school between kindergarten and third grade. “These chronically absent students perform far below their peers, with only around one in four achieving proficiency in reading,” said the report.
  2. The state’s early reading intervention program, Response to Intervention or RTI², launched in 2013 without state funding, hadn’t moved beyond ‘checkbox implementation.’
    About 75 percent of Shelby County’s students qualified for the daily RTI intervention, but only about 10 percent were getting it.

McQueen called the state’s reading woes “a true ethical and moral dilemma.”

In 2016, the Haslam administration launched a new statewide reading initiative, Read to be Ready. It’s stated goal: 75% of the state’s third-graders will be proficient readers by 2025.

Read to be Ready provided a framework for “more rigorous” K-3 reading instruction in elementary schools.

The new program also established a network of 250 literacy coaches to help K-2 teachers, and financed more than 200 month-long summer reading camps to help thousands of economically disadvantaged students avoid the so-called “summer slide” in learning.

In 2018, the department reported that first-, second- and third-graders who participated in the summer program showed testing gains in reading skills and comprehension for three consecutive years.

The following year, the new Trump administration pulled funding for the summer camps. And the new Lee administration pulled the plug on Read to be Ready.

“I’d love to know how this happened,” tweeted Gini Pupo-Walker, a Nashville school board member. “Read to be Ready was a smart investment. What’s the alternative literacy intervention strategy now?”

Keeping SCORE

Haslam’s Read to be Ready was another casualty of the reading wars.

Tennessee tried to be Switzerland.

“Tennessee’s approach,” the Department of Education declared in 2016, “does not adhere to any one specific approach (e.g., balanced literacy, whole language, or phonics first). Tennessee’s framework recognizes the flexibility that is needed to plan instruction.”

The department acknowledged the contributions of both “phonics purists” and “whole language advocates” to its early literacy plan. But the program clearly leaned toward its understanding of “balanced literacy.”

“Balanced literacy,” the department explained, “while described and implemented in a variety of ways, focuses primarily on the five components of reading — phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.”

Those were the same “five pillars” promoted by the 2000 National Reading Panel.

But for phonics-first purists, “balanced literacy” is a whole-language ruse.

“Rather than fight the five components, trendy reading gurus have placed them under the banner of ‘balanced instruction’ while continuing to promote the failed whole-language practices of yore,” Louisa Moats, the Reading Panel’s project director and an educational psychologist and literacy expert, wrote in 2007.

“It’s a deceptive marketing slogan,” the Fordham Institute said in its 2008 report on Reading First. “More often than not, whole language reading programs in the schools are now called ‘balanced.’”

In early 2020, the influential State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, criticized Read to be Ready’s balanced approach as a “patchwork of philosophies.”

“This neutral position inadvertently perpetuates ineffective early literacy instruction by leaving room for practices borrowed from whole language, at times masquerading as balanced literacy, that are not based on the cognitive science around how children learn to read,” SCORE declared.

SCORE was founded in 2009. It listed more than $17 million in assets in 2019. It was led by Jamie Woodson, a Republican state legislator from 1999-2011, and former chair of the Senate education committee. She was paid about $300,000 a year until she left in 2019.

Testing company Pearson stores printed testing materials, including for Tennessee’s TNReady assessment, in the company’s warehouse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Submitted photo)
Testing company Pearson stores printed testing materials, including for Tennessee’s TNReady assessment, in the company’s warehouse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Submitted photo)

SCORE’s board members include legal counsel Chuck Cagle, a Nashville attorney and registered lobbyist for Pearson, which developed, administered and scored TCAP tests from 2003 through 2014. He also lobbied for Measurement Inc., which ran TNReady tests from 2014-2016.

The Lee administration gave Pearson the contract again in 2019.

Cagle also has lobbied for SCORE, as well as the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, the Association of Independent and Municipal Schools and more than 70 state school districts including Memphis.

His wife, Sandra Cagle, a former account executive for Pearson, is now a sales rep for Curriculum Associates, creator of the i-Ready assessment program which is used in schools across Shelby County, Tennessee, and more than two dozen other states.

SCORE’s 2020 report declared that, while the Haslam administration’s “Read to Be Ready brought much-needed attention to Tennessee’s early literacy challenges, by itself, was not enough to address all of Tennessee’s early literacy challenges.”

SCORE offered a solution: “Tennessee should declare the science of reading to be the state’s only approach to literacy instruction. Research shows that systematic phonics instruction coupled with systematic knowledge-building is essential to learning how to read. State lawmakers should codify science-based reading as literacy policy in Tennessee.”

SCORE’s 2020 report, widely shared with legislators, school officials and public school advocates, was titled “The Science of Reading.”

‘Learning loss’ and opportunity

Right after SCORE’s “Science of Reading” report was issued in early 2020, the Lee administration presented a new statewide early literacy initiative to the legislature.

It called for adoption of the “Science of Reading,” which focuses on early reading skills such as phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) visited with Shantial Harris, 6, (left) as she put numbers in sequential order at Frayser’s Libertas School in September 2020. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian file)
Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) visited with Shantial Harris, 6, (left) as she put numbers in sequential order at Frayser’s Libertas School in September 2020. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian file)

“We know that if we are going to teach a kindergartner to read, it is not as easy as looking at just phonemic awareness,” said Dr. Penny Schwinn, the state’s education commissioner. “It’s the science of reading, which we are also pushing in our strategic plan in the first priority area.”

Early in the 2020 session, some legislators expressed concern that any program labeled “science of reading” would be too restrictive for school districts and favor only a handful of curriculum publishers.

The legislation was revised. All references to the “science of reading” were replaced with references to “foundational literacy skills.”

Later in the session, other legislators expressed concerns that the program’s $68 million price tag was too steep in midst of an uncertain and growing COVID-19 pandemic.

Lee’s reading initiative died in 2020, but was resurrected earlier this year, repackaged with a new urgency in the midst of the pandemic’s uncertain and growing impact on “learning loss.”

“We’re meeting today because it’s time to intervene for our kids who are staring down record learning losses,” Lee told legislators Jan. 19, explaining why he called them to an extraordinary legislative session devoted to education reform.

“It would be much simpler to hope or to assume that disruptions to school caused by COVID will just come out in the wash,” Lee said. “But unfortunately, the data — the science— tells us that isn’t true. Data suggests there are very real consequences to keeping students out of the classroom for this long.

“Nationally, that looks like a 50% drop in reading proficiency and a 65% drop in math proficiency with third-grade students. That sort of forecast is forcing an unacceptable future on our kids and it’s why we are proposing a series of reforms around learning loss and literacy.”

That sort of “forecast” was based on “learning loss” predictions made in April 2020, a month after the pandemic began and schools were closed. But those predictions of a devastating “COVID slide” in learning, made by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), proved to be inaccurate.

In late November, NWEA published a new study based on reading assessments given to 4.4 million students in grades 3-8 in the fall.

According to actual data, students in nearly all grades had made progress in reading and math since the pandemic began, though by slimmer margins than normal. In math, students fell 5-10 percentage points behind their same-grade peers from 2019. In reading, the numbers stayed about the same in 2020.

NWEA officials noted that, while it was too early to draw definitive conclusions, teachers, students and parents clearly had worked hard to overcome the pandemic-related difficulties. It “shows the energy educators put into quickly shifting their instructional model,” Aaliyah Samuel, an NWEA executive vice president, told Chalkbeat.

Shelby County Schools reported similar progress in December. Historically, 27% of students scored below grade-level in the fall’s i-Ready reading assessments. In Fall 2020, 28% scored below grade-level.

State and local education officials hope the annual TNReady tests being given this month will provide a more definitive look at the “COVID slide.”

The less dire “learning loss” numbers were not referenced by Lee, Schwinn or legislators, who continued to push the special session as a response to an expanding crisis.

“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,” state Sen. Kelsey said when he introduced the bills to the Senate education committee in January.

“In crisis, there’s opportunity,” said state Rep. Scott Cepicky, who helped to craft the legislation.

After both bills were approved, Lee thanked legislators for their swift action and support.

“COVID-19 has severely disrupted education in Tennessee,” Lee said. “Our decisive action to intervene on behalf of Tennessee students will equip them for success, educating our kids better in the future than before the pandemic.”

State Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), a retired Knox County teacher, had another view. “The way I see this is they had a literacy program that they wanted to implement, and they used the pandemic to do it,” she said.

This story first appeared at under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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