Jul 16, 2021

Sharpening the focus on Tennessee’s priorities

Shauna Harps
Tennessee State Co-Lead
Region 5 Logo

Shauna Harps, Ph.D. and Monica Young, Ph.D.
Tennessee State Co-Leads for the Region 5 Comprehensive Center

As state and local education agency leaders outline plans for their allocation of the US Department of Education’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, policymakers, researchers, and other education stakeholders compare and contrast the intricacies of each state’s spending plan. For example, Dale Chu’s recent paper praised several aspects of Tennessee’s spending plan, including investment of funds in a limited number of priority areas, enactment of legislation for education recovery, and emphasis on assessment to measure progress.

As state co-leads for the Region 5 Comprehensive Center, we work in partnership with Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) leaders to implement projects that address the state’s biggest education priorities. Our discussions with TDOE leadership regularly focus on how to help meet state education goals centered on the agency’s Best for All strategic plan, which was introduced in late 2019. The strategic plan targets three key education priorities: increasing student access to quality academic programs, providing support for the whole child (academic and non-academic needs), and supporting teachers and leaders. Dale Chu points out that Tennessee will invest its federal stimulus funds in activities related to academics, student readiness, and professional learning, which parallel the priorities in TDOE’s strategic plan. Instead of investing stimulus funds in numerous new activities or initiatives, Tennessee’s federal funds will be used to bolster efforts to address a limited number of mostly pre-pandemic education priorities. 

Initial and continuous discussions of TDOE’s needs as part of the Region 5 Comprehensive Center work have also focused on a few targeted priority areas, most often related to human capital systems, which will maximize potential benefits. One element of TDOE’s strategic plan is supporting teachers and leaders, including professional development. Shortly after COVID-19 introduced itself to the world, we had a meeting with our primary point of contact at TDOE to discuss potential priority shifts due to the pandemic. The TDOE leader described the agency’s plan to develop a framework so they have a consistent approach to professional development throughout the state. The agency leader emphasized the importance of ALL staff having access to high-quality professional development regardless of whether they attend in person or virtually. This discussion led to our partnership with leaders from TDOE’s Office of Human Capital to design a framework and toolkit for creating and implementing high-quality professional development grounded in adult learning theory. The intention was to provide staff with tools and resources to create and implement learning experiences that will increase staff skills and knowledge regardless of where they are learning—next to their peers in a classroom or on a computer at their kitchen table.

Chu also emphasized the significance of new legislation in Tennessee to mitigate challenges associated with pandemic-related learning loss. Legislators passed the Tennessee Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act during a special legislative session in January 2021, through which school districts received funding to boost summer learning and counteract the pandemic’s negative effects on academic achievement. In addition to passing the important legislation during the historic special session, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, TDOE staff, legislators, and community partners launched the Accelerating TN 2021 Tour. The summer bus tour gives state leaders and partners the opportunity to visit 50 school districts throughout the state to engage with local stakeholders, identify and share best practices, and support student learning. The new legislation and bus tour underscore the importance of meaningful stakeholder engagement with education leaders and decision-makers at the federal, state, and local levels. The bus tour also provides transparency to educators, parents, and students about how education leaders are investing in students’ educations.

In 2020-21 as required by the U.S. Department of Education in a letter to State Chiefs, Tennessee continued to implement their large-scale state assessment program. Additional legislation passed during the special legislative session in January 2021 added hold-harmless clauses for schools and teachers based on state assessments taken in 2020-21. Schools that have 80% or more student participation in the state assessments cannot be identified as a priority school or assigned to the achievement school district based on 2020-21 TCAP assessments and results from these assessments will be excluded from the student growth measure for teachers, unless the composite results in a higher final evaluation score for the teacher. This important legislation ensured TDOE schools and educators would have access to a longitudinal source of data and information for use in instructional decision-making. Commissioner Schwinn highlighted in a recent webinar hosted by Dale Chu and TDOE’s ESSER Plan further emphasizes the importance of district access to baseline assessment data to provide evidence for identifying students most significantly impacted by COVID-19 and prioritizing those students for high-dosage, low-ratio tutoring opportunities, the intervention where TDOE is investing the bulk of their required usage of ESSER funds on learning loss. Continuing the implementation of state assessments in 2020-21 as students transition back to established school activities also helped to provide students with a level of consistency in schooling in an otherwise disruptive year.  

Access to high-quality, longitudinal data is one important tool in educators’ toolboxes as they continue to tirelessly support student growth and development as Tennessee rebounds from the impact of the pandemic. We look forward to TDOE’s continued transparency in communication and focus on professional learning and student readiness and we hope to have an opportunity to collaborate with TDOE in communications planning and design related to student assessments and accountability as everyone prepares for the 2021-22 school year.