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Tennessee Experts Say Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters

For Release: May 18, 2010
Contact:      Linda O’Neal
                  Pam K. Brown
Phone         (615) 741-2633


Nashville ––Tennessee early education and reading experts say the state’s economy and quality of life can be improved when our children learn reading on time.

The experts were speaking at an event to present the findings of a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Program, “Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters.”

Linda O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth (TCCY), said, “The future prosperity of Tennessee and the nation depends on the development of a workforce with skills for the 21st Century. Over the course of their lifetimes, children who struggle with reading face a multitude of challenges that perpetuate disadvantage from generation to generation, especially among low-income children.

“The report indicates unfortunately only a little more than one in four Tennessee fourth graders (28 percent) scored proficient in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, giving the state a ranking of 37th.”

Educators in Tennessee do have plans for improving reading education.

Dr. David Dickinson, professor of education and interim chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, said, “Achieving grade-level reading…is a goal that only will be reached through early, concerted, coordinated and sustained actions that begin at birth and continue through grade three.

“Educating children…is a challenge for our state, our communities and our families as well as for our schools.”

Dickinson acknowledged communities, neighborhood agencies, schools and families are being stressed by a host of complex challenges. He said, “No single link in this interconnected web of supports for children can accomplish this task alone, but we can accomplish it if we create sustained, coordinated and focused efforts designed to build the reading competencies of all children.”

Dickinson reported on a successful Nashville early education collaboration of educators and community groups, a collective effort with Vanderbilt University and 13 Metro Nashville Public Schools, which involves parents. The Metro Nashville Public Library provides workshops and enrichment, and the YMCA is hosting a coordinated, focused and sustained effort we need to see across the city.

James Herman, executive director of reading for the Tennessee Department of Education, said the department has always made reading a priority in our schools, but acknowledged a lack of resources.

He said the Race to the Top grant, which Tennessee is only one of two states to receive to date, will ensure schools have effective teachers and leaders.

He said, “The Race to the Top will help ensure standards for reading will be implemented by all teachers. Content teachers will receive instruction in content literacy…. All teachers will be evaluated on classroom performance of teaching reading.”

Herman said collaboration between the state Department of Education and nonprofit community organizations, businesses and professional reading groups will help to strengthen the reading process.

“Students struggling in reading in all schools will receive intervention so they can reach their full potential in reading,” said Herman.

Nashville Vice-Mayor Diane Neighbors, the chair of the Tennessee Association for Early Education and the director of the Vanderbilt Child Care Center, discussed the importance of these efforts, saying, “It is critical that we provide for the total development of each child so they will be ready to learn when they start school. Children need health care, appropriate nutrition, safe neighborhoods and quality early childhood education

“We need to connect the dots and coordinate across programs to support parents, teachers, and children,” Neighbors said. “We must demand quality programs that will ensure that children can read at grade level by the end of third grade. Otherwise, they have little chance of succeeding and they are more likely to drop out of school.”

Mary Graham, the president of the United Ways of Tennessee, spoke from a personal perspective of the joy and utility her third grade son finds in reading. She talked about the Tennessee United Ways’ work to improve reading education. All across Tennessee they support early childhood education programs and Pre-K classrooms and provide essential supports for healthy, strong families.

In addition to Tennessee’s event, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Project released the report at a nationally streamed webinar from the National Press Club. The archived event can be viewed at:

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Tim Webb participated in the national release event. He said: “If one thing comes out of the $500 million Tennessee won from the Race to the Top, it's leaving a legacy of changing expectations so our citizens expect more….The expectation of the population of educators - expecting the most of every child - that's the expectation we have to change.

“If the race to the top, as Secretary Duncan has said, is our moon shoot, and I really believe it is, if we get what we are talking about today right, that's the rocket that is going to take us there,” Webb added.

The report is available on the KIDS COUNT Project’s online Data Center ( It can be downloaded, and users can create maps, graphs, and charts of education data at national and local levels.

The Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth is an independent agency created by the Tennessee General Assembly. Its primary mission is to advocate for improvements in the quality of life for Tennessee children and families. Partial funding for TCCY's KIDS COUNT program is provided through a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to disadvantaged children.

For more information, contact (615) 741-2633.

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