Vicki Kirk, the past deputy commissioner and chief academic officer for the Tennessee Department of Education, once said, “High standards are the defense against low expectations.”
As a kindergarten teacher beginning my 26th year, I know that high standards are critical to student success. But how can I ensure that I am delivering lessons and instruction that are aligned to the rigorous standards in my classroom daily? What supports do I need to be effective?
Quality of instruction
The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting educators to improve educational equity, released a study in 2018 that evaluated the quality of instruction that students received. The study focused on nearly 4,000 students in five diverse school systems across the country to learn more about their experiences. The results were somewhat alarming. The report showed that “students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them — the equivalent of six months of wasted class time in each core subject.” As an educator, I found the results of the TNTP study disheartening, so I decided to investigate whether this was true in in my home state of Tennessee.
Per the 2018 Tennessee Educator Survey, 88 percent of teachers believed they understand and have confidence in what Tennessee’s grade-level standards expect of them. Similarly, the state’s educator evaluation system shows that more than 80 percent of teachers are rated as “exceeding expectations” in classroom observations. Despite these high marks, there are still persistent gaps in student achievement. In 2018, the Tennessee Department of Education published “A Report on Elementary Grades Reading in Tennessee,” which included observations of more than 700 reading classrooms, and found that fewer than 10 percent included questions and tasks that met the state’s literacy standards for rigor.
Close the gap
Something must be done to support teachers and close the gap that exists between understanding the standards and effectively implementing them. Among the most pressing needs for educators are high-quality aligned materials and professional learning. According to the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education, more commonly known as SCORE, “Access to high-quality instructional classroom materials and strong, personalized professional development opportunities serve to sharpen practice and provide collaboration with colleagues in order to provide more rigorous instruction and more meaningful assignments using stronger, aligned instructional materials.”
In my experience, I have consistently found it necessary to supplement district-provided materials in order to ensure that I was delivering truly high-quality, aligned instruction that meets the academic needs of my students. And I am not alone: The 2017 Tennessee Educator Survey found that K-2 teachers are spending an average of 4½ hours per week seeking out materials just for literacy instruction.
Nor is it enough to provide quality materials. Teachers need quality ongoing, professional development and the opportunity to collaborate. When training is not provided, teachers have to rely on self-directed research and learning, which may or may not lead to tried-and-true best practices and aligned instruction in the classroom. To effectively implement the standards in our classrooms, teachers must be provided with high-quality instructional materials that leverage literacy improvement. Teachers must also have access to coherent, high-quality professional learning on using those materials to improve classroom practice. Professional development must begin during pre-service learning and continue and build throughout the expanse of a teacher’s career.
The Tennessee Department of Education recently convened a new educator-preparation and district literacy network to revise and implement literacy standards and help new educators understand the art and science of reading instruction. I am hopeful that with these initiatives in place, Tennessee can become a leader in supporting its teachers to deliver effective instruction that helps close gaps among students and ensures that we are holding them to the high expectations outlined in the standards.
Christy Grubb is a kindergarten teacher in Sevier County. She is a Model Classroom teacher within her home district and an Educator Preparatory Program evaluator for colleges of education across the state.