Learning loss, summer school, teacher pay: One-on-one with Tennessee education commissioner

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – We’re nearing the end of an unprecedented school year for the entire country and the State of Tennessee.

Earlier this year, Tennessee students were predicted to have record losses in learning. Third graders faced an estimated 50 percent drop in reading proficiency and a projected 65 percent drop in math proficiency.

Education Commissioner Dr. Penny Schwinn said they’re waiting on final results from state tests but early benchmark data from districts shows what her department expected.

“Math across the board. It’s really hard to self-teach math or do that in an online space, so we’ve seen that and it trends in what we’ve seen nationally, and then for reading we’ve actually seen that a lot of our students who are in older grades who have mastered literacy and reading, they were able to do some more self-paced instruction,” said Dr. Schwinn. “Our younger students, especially those who were in virtual for the majority of the year, really have struggled with being able to stay on track. Because learning to read is really hard and teaching to read is also really hard. We’ve seen that in that kindergarten, Pre-K through second-grade space; we aren’t seeing as much progress as we normally would.”

She said the far ends of grades, high school and early literacy, seem to be the most impacted.

Dr. Schwinn added the general assembly has essentially funded summer school for about 40 percent of students from rising first graders through rising eighth graders.

“Every district is offering some kind of option. Most have gone to a four-week program that allows students to really focus on reading and math, and then I put in play. I think “play” is really important. It is the summer, but it does allow for those social interactions as well as really targeted instruction for areas that might have been missed or not progress as we would’ve wanted them to,” said Dr. Schwinn. “What we’re seeing statewide is one: a lot of excitement especially in elementary schools about opportunities to ensure the entire curriculum was covered and that students are ready. We talk a lot about the summer slide anyway. This prevents that.”

She explained, however, that summer school is not expected to undo all the learning loss during the pandemic, so there’s a lot of focus on the fall semester.

“We know that one four week summer program is not necessarily going to be the silver bullet that’s going to cover all the loss that we’ve seen, or at least not acceleration as we normally would’ve seen. So, one of the big challenges is going to be how do we integrate strong tutoring and after school programs that provide additional time and support for students who need it,” said Dr. Schwinn. “We’ve received over $4 billion in federal relief funds to spend in the next three years. So supporting districts in how to strategically think about allocating and spending those resources so that they benefit children first.”

She said she felt it would take another two to three years to get back to a sense of normalcy with education in Tennessee.

“I think we’re going to rebound in terms of student achievement data much faster than that,” Dr. Schwinn explained. “That’s where I think Tennessee has been so special is we didn’t have budget cuts from the general assembly. They actually added over $150 million in terms of k-12 education funding on top of this $4 billion federal relief investment.”

She said figuring out how to retain good teachers was another big goal for the next school year, since Tennessee’s teacher pay lags behind the national average.

“I was happy to see the general assembly and Governor Lee felt so strongly about adding over $120 million to educator compensation over just the last session,” said Dr. Schwinn. “Certainly what the department has been doing over the past 6 months is analyses, not just state by state but actually county-by-county for our border counties. So what does it look like if you’re sitting on the Kentucky side of the border or you’re sitting on the other side in Jackson County? What does that actually mean in terms of comparable pay? So we’ve been doing that level of analysis to see what will it take to make sure that Tennessee educators don’t just get the professional development and support and acceleration that we want them to have, but that we are compensating them in a way that is competitive.”

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