Tennessee Incentivizes District Investment in Academic Recovery with Best For All Program

NEW: Updates on Implementation

Strategy In Review:

TN ALL Corps is Tennessee’s tutoring initiative, with the state investing $200 million in recovery funds to ensure that 150,000 students receive high-dosage tutoring to help with academic recovery. $150 million of these funds will go toward matching grants to school districts that choose to implement high dosage tutoring. $50 million is reserved for community partners who are coordinating to offer high dosage tutoring programs in areas where public schools cannot meet demand independently. TN ALL Corps’ eighty-three participating districts must serve first through fifth graders, while sixth through eighth grade is optional.

Quick Course Correction:

The Tennessee Department of Education had originally planned to require that school districts implement all ten of the Annenberg Institute’s Design Principles for Effective Tutoring. After receiving little interest initially, the state agency spoke directly to district leaders to better understand their apprehension and identify hurdles preventing districts from joining the initiative. District leaders expressed concern over the program’s rigidity but indicated a willingness to sign on if certain flexibilities could be granted. While the TDOE was unwilling to compromise on quality, they were willing to grant districts the flexibility to implement a tutoring program that fit with their current facility and staffing capabilities. To that end, the state offered specific flexibility around tutoring outside of the regular school day and using curriculum materials that are already in use.

In April, the agency conducted district observations which revealed that most districts (around 80%) were implementing what the state believes to be high-quality models. As it turned out, many districts that originally declined to take on the TN All Corps initiative - but did so once flexibility was granted - subsequently chose to closely follow the Annenberg model. This may be due to school-day programs being less difficult to coordinate than before or after-school programs given timing and staffing complexities. State agencies around the country should take note of the TDOE’s willingness to both listen to district leader concerns and adjust programming requirements in order to accelerate adoption of the statewide initiative. TDOE should be commended for prioritizing flexibility and the evaluation of program quality in implementing their statewide recovery programs, and we urge other states to consider a similar approach.

Hurdles to Overcome:

Through consistent and timely reflection, TDOE has identified that tutoring efforts in math have been generally more successful than specific tutoring initiatives in English Language Arts, which agency officials credit to the statewide use of Zearn’s math instruction progress monitoring system. In ELA, state officials cite higher costs for ELA curriculum and progress monitoring systems as deterrents for district leaders as they look to purchase higher quality materials. As a result, state leaders say that it has been most difficult to achieve consistent 4th-8th grade ELA tutoring throughout participating districts (among districts that have chosen to offer tutoring to middle school grades).

Building New Community Partnerships:

TDOE is providing eight groups of organizations with grants to come together and supplement the tutoring efforts of districts in their region. The organizations currently applying for a share of the $50 million budget for the program don’t have existing relationships with the agency by and large, which creates an opportunity to reach more families and students not currently being served. However, this also means that implementing and monitoring effective tutoring programs might be more challenging, absent long-standing relationships. Implementation of this new effort will need to be monitored to see if community partners can replicate the success found with districts.

Lessons from District Implementation:

After speaking with leaders at two school districts that are implementing TN ALL Corps, some trends around progress and common challenges emerged.

Areas of success:

● These districts had been largely successful in hiring staff – both tutors and those at the district office who would oversee the program. They had found that retired teachers in the community and teachers who were considering new subjects or grades fit well as tutors.

● Implementing tutoring during the regular school day, as opposed to before or after school, was critical for being able to reach students. The risk of no-shows due to lack of transportation or schedule conflicts was too high outside of regular school hours. However, districts needed the flexibility to discover this challenge for themselves before being fully committed to implementing tutoring during the regular school day.

● Elementary curriculum and Zearn as a math curriculum for both elementary and middle school were relatively straightforward to administer and seem to be successful so far.

● Academic and socioemotional benefits have been clear. Progress monitoring in both districts has demonstrated that the students participating in tutoring are establishing connections with their tutors; giving these students another trained adult to help them cope and/or address the challenges associated with the past few difficult school years has been pivotal in their social and emotional growth.

Common challenges:

● By far the most cited challenge was scheduling, especially in the middle school grades. In all age groups it was important to avoid students missing core instruction during tutoring sessions. Subsequently, some middle school students and parents objected to missing elective classes (which was when tutoring needed to take place). Meanwhile in the elementary grades, rounding up students for their tutoring session was liable to eat into actual tutoring time. While both districts indicated that this challenge is improving as they learn over time, the added level of schedule complexity was stressful for everyone at first. There were particular requests for the state to publish scheduling solutions online somewhere.

● There was some initial pushback from teachers who wondered if the tutors would be able to help their students as much as they could. Both districts employed different strategies for onboarding the tutors and engaging teachers. For example, one district invested structured time for tutors and teachers to get to know one another and plan together.

● Quality English Language Arts curriculum was generally more difficult to nail down, either because it was difficult to find or very expensive.

● While the district officials we spoke with cited parent outreach and engagement as an initial challenge that they solved quickly, it is worth noting here. Some parents misunderstood the purpose and message of the tutoring program and worried that their child was being disciplined. We expect that clear communication about the purpose and benefit of a tutoring program is something that districts should communicate about early and often.

Sustainability:

Both districts indicated that participating in TN ALL Corps was a no brainer. Providing more support for students who needed it was worth the effort and, due to federal recovery funding, money was removed from the list of barriers preventing them from implementing a program like this.

One district did indicate that they were planning on maintaining their tutoring program after federal funding is no longer available. They were optimistic that, after they had used recovery dollars to stand up the new program, train tutors and supervisors, and find and implement high quality curriculum, the program could be sustained at a more affordable cost. That said, we will not know definitively whether some or many districts are able to sustain TN All Corps until the time comes.

State Strategy & Vision

The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) believes in making “big bets” and investments that specifically focus on areas of academic need – and that vision guides their use of federal COVID relief funds. Therefore, it is no surprise then that the state is investing $200 million in its Tennessee Accelerating Literacy and Learning Corps (TN ALL Corps) – a statewide tutoring program that will reach 150,000 students. But the approach goes further than just the funding. The state did not merely decide upon a high dosage tutoring strategy and hoped it would happen but developed a thorough incentive plan – based on district feedback and need – to encourage district participation and reward/recognize those that join.

Why We Like It

The Tennessee state education agency is following through on its vision of big investments and doing so in a way that recognizes the realities on the ground. Districts need – and face conflicting pressures – to use federal COVID relief funds in myriad ways. By offering them tangible incentives and cost-sharing opportunities, TDOE is encouraging participation in the high-dosage tutoring plan to ultimately drive greater academic acceleration and student outcomes.

The Tennessee DOE believes in making investments that specifically focus on areas of academic need - and that vision guides their use of federal COVID relief funds.

What They Did

Tennessee Department of Education leaders recognized that while educational recovery is paramount, the fact remains that districts also have good reason to spend their recovery funds on infrastructure or other investments. To incentivize districts to keep their eye on the ball and maintain focus on learning acceleration, the agency launched the Best for All initiative, which includes a host of benefits for participating districts. To be designated as a Best for All district, the Tennessee Department of Education required that a district use at least 50% of its recovery funds on proven, research-based strategies to accelerate student learning. The district must also participate in the TN ALL Corps program and provide students with high-dosage, low-ratio tutoring. Participating districts and TDOE share the cost of TN ALL Corps, with participating districts receiving $700 per student in the program.

TDOE has also committed to recognizing and lifting up Best for All districts for their commitment to student learning starting with Best for All Day; a Day of Recognition from the Governor. The department hosted a statewide livestream celebration that showcased districts’ local spending decisions and targeted investment strategies. The agency has also provided Best for All districts with tangible benefits, such as membership to a community of practice, access to planning grants, and additional tutoring resources. Student outcomes in Best for All districts will additionally be tracked separately via a statewide leaderboard. TDOE is even promising operational benefits like priority in reimbursement processing. The full list of benefits that TDOE has announced for Best for All districts can be found here. Districts awarded with the Best for All designation were announced on February 11th, and the state and field are positioned to monitor and evaluate the continued uptake and implementation of these programs beyond the pandemic.

For more information about Tennessee’s K-12 recovery strategy or the Best for All program, contact Emma McCallie, Director of National Strategy, Office of the Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Education.