Lee Tells General Assembly "It's Time To Intervene For Our Kids

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Saying the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruptions for schools, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee told members of the General Assembly, "It's time to intervene for our kids."


The governor spoke at the opening of a joint convention on education that he called.


His remarks as prepared for delivery are:


Thank you Lt.

Governor McNally and Speaker Sexton, Speaker Pro-Tem Haile and Speaker Pro-Tem Marsh for the opportunity to convene on behalf of our students. 


I also thank Leader Johnson, Leader Lamberth, members of the education committee who have worked closely with us, and I want to thank all the members of the General Assembly. 


We have a shared belief that the foundation of our state is the strength of her people. 


As we approach the one year mark of managing the COVID-19 pandemic in Tennessee and facing the number of other challenges in this state and on the federal level, it’s a common refrain to hear “this is a historic time”, or an “unprecedented time” or “never before have seen a challenge of this magnitude.” 


In many ways, that’s certainly true, and I’ve found there has been no greater place for COVID to cause sweeping disruption than in our K-12 school system.


This disruption has left students to navigate unprecedented challenges without the routine of learning in a classroom, with classmates and a trusted teacher. 


We’re meeting today because it’s time to intervene for our kids who are staring down record learning losses, that in the short-term, mean an inability to read at their grade level or understand basic math. 


But in the long-term, those learning losses mean higher incarceration rates and poverty as adults. 


Our work here this week bears great significance on the safety of our neighborhoods and the prosperity of our state for a generation. 


Big challenges require decisive action, which is why we have agreed to meet this week in an extraordinary legislative session. 


We cannot wait, because our students cannot wait. 


It would be much simpler to hope or to assume that disruptions to school caused by COVID will just come out in the wash. 


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. We are also proposing a pause around some aspects of accountability. 


These data points are important, and indeed we have used data to make all decisions impacting our schools. 


Months ago, when critics were loud and the scare tactics were louder with all the reasons why we couldn’t safely return students and teachers to the classroom, we traded that speculation for science. 


We followed that science down a path that would make us one of the first states in the country to get students and teachers back in the classroom this fall across 145 of our 147 districts. 


Tennessee has thus become a national leader in embracing the courage to get back in the classroom and show that it can be done. 


I commend those districts, those local leaders and educators for not settling for the path of least resistance and hiding behind month after month of virtual learning with no end in sight. 


Instead, we saw the vast majority of our schools, led by determined superintendents put in the work that was needed for one reason: their students were counting on them. 


And kids have a lot to say about in-person learning or the lack thereof. 


In a survey of more than 20,000 school kids across nine states, only 39% of students in grades 5 through 12 reported that they ‘learned a lot almost every day’ during the shutdown.’[1] 


64% of students overall reported experiencing distractions at home that interfered with schoolwork.


And worse so, Black and Latino students reported facing more obstacles to learning at home than white and Asian students.


Here’s the bottom line: you can’t say “follow the science” and keep schools closed. 


You can’t say “I believe in public education” and keep schools closed. 


And you can’t say you’re putting the needs of students first and keep schools closed. 


Kids do better in school: we know that - parents know that. 


That’s why I’m so proud of our districts who have kids in school, and to those who remain closed, I would offer this simple encouragement: follow the science. 


Getting kids back in the classroom is imperative. But the reality is that the impacts from COVID would require us to act urgently even if every student was back to in-person learning tomorrow. 


First, let’s talk about learning loss. 


Paired with a full return to the classroom, we are proposing a targeted intervention to reach those kids who are falling behind in reading and math. 


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


We are proposing a third-grade reading gate which means that we make sure students are prepared before we pass them through to the fourth grade. 


When we stop the cycle of passing without preparation, we give kids a better chance at succeeding in middle school and beyond. 


Our proposal also includes a full-time tutoring corps, after school camps, learning loss bridge camps and summer learning camps. 


Upon passage of our proposed legislation, we will be prepared to execute and administer these targeted interventions beginning this summer. 


Now, let’s talk about literacy. 


So much of our success in K-12 hinges on building better readers. 


When only 34% 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. 


We need to teach our kids to read with phonics. 


It’s the way we learned to read. It’s the way we taught our kids. 


With this proposal, kindergarteners through third grade will be taught phonics as the primary form of reading instruction. 


And to make sure our progress is on track, we’ve developed a screening tool to help parents and teachers identify a struggling student more quickly. 


Simple methods like phonics serve our kids better - Commissioner Schwinn knows it and I know it and that’s what we’re going to use in Tennessee. 


We believe that these tools will work for our students but we have to have a clear picture of their starting point to get a window into the progress that they’ll make. 


So we will keep TCAP testing in place for the 20/21 school year so that parents and teachers know where students stand. 


However, there will be no negative consequences associated with student assessments so that the focus can remain on getting firm footing back in place after the uncertainty of time away from the classroom. 


To be clear: no teacher will be penalized due to test results this school year. But we’ll be relying on teachers and districts like never before to help us get these kids back on track. 


This approach isn’t going to be easy but as leaders we must do what it takes for our kids. 


We’re pursuing both bold interventions and a return to the basics and for any of these goals to come to fruition, we have to account for our teachers. 


We are proposing additional funding through both an appropriations bill this week and our upcoming budget to give a pay raise to every single teacher in Tennessee.


We are proposing to increase the salary component of our funding formula by 4%. This is not just about compensation - it’s an investment in better outcomes for our kids and we should all place an expectation on school districts that these dollars get passed directly to our teachers.


In the last decade, our students have made great strides in both reading and math and yet the events of the last year stand to threaten that progress. 


We aren’t where we want to be as a state but we have a tremendous opportunity here and now to not only stave off a monumental crisis but to forge a new path. 

Our new approach isn’t just about making up the losses.

These changes to our education system will actually educate our kids better in the future than we did before the pandemic. 


And that is a redemption story for our education system that will have ripple effects on our students’ lives for decades and well beyond the classroom. 

Thank you for your time today and careful consideration to each of these proposals. We should not miss this opportunity and together we’ll change the future of Tennessee. Thank you.

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