Vanderbilt professors publish letter addressing Tennessee educational inequalities

The letter urges the state to focus on language development, student inclusivity and additional resources for schools.

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Alex Venero

Wyatt Center on the Peabody Esplanade. Picture taken on Nov. 7, 2020. (Hustler Multimedia/Alex Venero)

Jake Schenthal, Staff Writer

On Feb. 3, three Peabody College professorsAmanda Goodwin, Emily Phillips Galloway and Deborah Rowepublished an op-ed in The Tennessean urging the Tennessee legislature to teach students how to meaningfully use reading and writing as literacy tools to comprehend the world, focus on language comprehension and include linguistic development for multilingual students of all ages, starting with the state’s youngest students. 

According to Phillips Galloway, due to historical inequalities in Tennessee, low-income students, students with disabilities and those who grow up in multilingual homes often do not have the same access to educational opportunities that other students have. The article asks the state to follow existing scientific studies on literacy instruction and provide additional financial, material and human resources to schools.

According to Phillips Galloway, the pandemic has exacerbated these inequalities. Seven out of ten fourth grade students in Tennessee are reading at below an advanced or proficient level, and students with housing or food insecurities, multilingual students and students of color are more likely to face difficulties, according to the op-ed. On Jan. 4, Tennessee passed a $100 million dollar initiative, titled Reading 360, to help improve these literacy rates through tutoring programs and to provide additional training and reading resources for teachers. 

However, Phillips Galloway said that this time could be used as an opportunity to rethink the educational systems in Tennessee that give rise to these inequalities. Rather than try to condense missed material into a small period of time, she believes it is important for teachers to create engaging teaching practices for their students. 

“We tend in education to focus on remediation, rather than creating equally rich learning opportunities for all learners in schools,” Phillips Galloway said.

On Jan. 19, a special legislative session passed in Tennessee to establish a literacy agenda in the state. The agenda included a $160 million package to aid in educational losses from the pandemic, as well as established a phonics-based learning programs and programs to help struggling students. 

The legislative session is an important first step, but the state’s focus on literacy should not stop there. She advocates for a more expansive vision for educational instruction, including a focus on not just reading, but writing as well, per Phillips Galloway.

“For kids who speak two languages, they bring a lot of linguistic knowledge, cultural awareness and expansive vocabulary because they straddle two cultures and two languages all the time,” Phillips Galloway said. “Teachers really need to be prepared to be able to build on those skill sets and recognize that incredible strength that these populations bring.”

Phillips Galloway echoed that Tennessee has a responsibility to create richer teaching instruction and more opportunities for underserved populations, including multilingual students.

“I hope that our teachers will view the pandemic as an opportunity to restructure our educational systems and make a big difference in leading in education,” Phillips Galloway said.