Why Tennessee Should Be the National Model for Literacy

Tennessee has been in the news this year for our reading progress – well-deserved recognition for a smart strategy, well-executed. As states look for ways to improve reading outcomes, I believe the Tennessee model should be the Go To approach. Here’s why. 

Tennessee hasn’t just trained teachers, we’ve given them the right tools: curriculum.

Teacher training has become increasingly-popular as a means to bring the Science of Reading into classrooms, for good reason. Tennessee didn’t forget this; our Reading360 initiative trained 30,000 Tennessee teachers over the last two summers, and our teachers have raved about the experience.

However, training isn’t enough. If you simply tell teachers what needs to change without giving them the tools to do it, you become that coach that yells, “Run” or “Tackle” on the sidelines, without providing the plays and the playbook required for success.

By 2019, the “Best for All” initiative ensured that all districts now use high-quality ELA curriculum.  This has been a game-changer. Curriculum enables the changes we’ve asked teachers to make to be tangible and feasible. It is the proverbial playbook.

This is the cornerstone of our improvement, and the backbone for everything else that follows.

This curriculum focus stands in marked contrast to other states who’ve made a ‘Science of Reading’ investment; Mississippi has been rightfully cheered for its teacher training successes, but recent reporting reminds us that they are still catching up on bringing high-quality, knowledge-building curriculum to schools, to address the other aspects of the Science of Reading. Tennessee leads on literacy by investing in the Both-And of curriculum and training.

We are doing “curriculum-aligned professional learning” at statewide scale.

The Reading360 training was especially impactful because teachers had curriculum in hand during the training. The professional learning incorporated study of, and practice with, either the district-adopted foundational skills curriculum or the Tennessee Foundational Skills Curriculum Supplement – free, excellent materials developed by the state. Educators worked from the playbook, while learning why those plays were strategically essential. They weren’t just learning about why foundational skills matter, they were practicing classroom implementation. We can’t underestimate how much this makes the concepts more “real” to our teachers.

Education leaders talk about the need for professional learning to be curriculum-aligned, so that teachers have the playbook in hand as they are learning the concepts of the game. I consider #Reading360 training to be a proof of concept. Fortunately, this idea is getting traction nationally, and resources like Rivet Education’s Professional Learning Partner Guide have made it easier for districts to find partners for curriculum-based professional learning.  

We aren’t just focused on foundational skills.

Foundational skills are critical, as we have seen firsthand in Sumner. So many of our kids were guessing at words, and we didn’t know it until we started using more rigorous curriculum and it exposed our foundational skills shortcomings.

Still, we knew that we had issues beyond the early grades. Our test results were OK in the lower elementary grades, but when our kids got into upper grades, things started trailing off. 

But, since our shift to knowledge-building curriculum, we are seeing improvements that cross grades – something that is also reflected in Tennessee’s statewide testing results.  Tennessee districts saw gains across K–12, with the strongest gains actually happening in high school. That’s an important proof-point for the knowledge-building approach, which really shines when cumulative learning is assessed.    

Foundational skills are the easy (and important!) win; knowledge-building is harder Other states need to take note of Tennessee’s success.

We didn’t forget our secondary teachers.

When I taught high school history and English literature, I had students with so many reading needs, but no toolkit for dealing with them.  I’m proud to be in a state that brought Science of Reading training to teachers in upper grades and across the content areas. This summer, Secondary Literacy training was unsurprisingly hailed by our teachers as incredibly beneficial. “I have felt pretty helpless until now,” said one 7th grade teacher, and boy could I relate.

Our investments in knowledge-building ELA curricula also gave essential tools to our upper grades teachers. Investing in the Science of Reading means more than success with decoding in K–2.

We didn’t just support teachers, we nurtured leaders.

Tennessee also supported Literacy Implementation Networks, in which districts across the state using common ELA curriculum are working with high-quality professional learning organizations to support implementation.  Districts with mature implementations are partnered up with those that have newly adopted.  These networks have been phenomenally successful, and the added benefit is that they’ve helped to create a collaborative culture, and shared experience, across the state around our literacy initiatives.  

To my knowledge, Tennessee is the first state to truly scale curriculum-centered design for literacy. Keep an eye on our state in the years to come. With these investments taking root, I believe they will continue to bear fruit.

Literacy Is the Innovation Opportunity of 2019

The most exciting and actionable innovation opportunity before us is the potential to improve reading instruction at scale. That’s the conversation we need to be having in every district office.

Right now, you may be hearing more about reading concerns. And honestly, those issues are very real. I was proud to co-author a recent Education Week editorial, We Have a National Reading Crisis, which talks about the other side of the coin: numerous pervasive issues with reading instruction.

I have seen consistent misunderstandings about reading in three districts where I have served as a district leader. I hope you’ll take time to read the editorial, as I can’t summarize the concerns any better than Jared Myracle, Robin McClellan, and I captured them for EdWeek!

A friend saw the “national reading crisis” headline and said, “That makes it sound like this is a new issue, when it isn’t.” It’s a fair point. Much of the research we’re discussing was established by the National Reading Panel twenty years ago, or by previous research. Also, as a country, we have seen little growth in reading outcomes in 20 years. That IS a crisis– and it should compel our attention.

Jared, Robin, and I don’t just name issues… we talk about the solutions that are working in our districts. That’s why I feel inspired by this moment: Every sizable problem is an equally sizable opportunity.  

Vastly improved reading outcomes are actually within reach, and that motivates me.

Here’s my evidence:

The Curriculum Renaissance:

Districts finally have many choices for high-quality curriculum that’s aligned to research, aligned to standards, and built for the pedagogy we want.

I’ve had the pleasure to serve two of the largest school systems in North Carolina. Currently I’m working on my second ELA curriculum adoption in three years, and I am awed at how rapidly the options have improved, even in that short period.

The strongest new curricula improve on the previous generation in ways that might surprise you:

  • Most are designed to promote discourse and even social-emotional learning in Tier 1 English Language Arts.
  • Some are natural springboards for Project Based Learning.
  • Many are built around beloved trade books and culturally diverse texts.
  • Some are Open Educational Resources (OER) – which means they are free to use, and also that educators are given clear permission to edit/enhance the materials.
  • Many have been co-developed in classrooms.
  • I could say a great deal about the strong support for reading and writing instruction – and that’s probably its own blog. What stands out most is a frequent emphasis on helping students become good communicators, in writing and speech. Inspirational student writing and speaking experiences can be norms in our classrooms.

I could go on. I’d suggest checking out the materials that are “all-green” in EdReports reviews, as they each have their own virtues.

Our standards call for instructional shifts, and curriculum makes them tangible and achievable. It’s the power tool we need.

The Professional Learning Angle:

The stronger curricula support more rigorous teaching and learning, which is a key part of their appeal. They are research-aligned, which makes curriculum implementation a natural, powerful opportunity for job-embedded learning on reading research. In addition, many of the curricula are designed to be “educative,” and contain professional learning resources within the teacher materials, sometimes in the lesson plans.

For all of these reasons, I have seen curriculum implementation offer the most effective job-embedded professional learning.

While this yields better teaching, it’s not easy teaching. And practice shifts can be daunting for any of us. Fortunately, this generation of providers “gets it,” and each offers genuinely excellent support for implementation. That’s the good news. The straight talk is: you must budget and plan for that substantive PD as part of your implementation plan. I promise that it pays real dividends.

If you bring in truly excellent materials, and then support your teachers in understanding the Why and the How of those materials, you will be shocked at the instructional gain.

The No Shame Zone:

As we talk of “national reading crisis,” and generations of educators who don’t know key research, this is my favorite theme:

“Educators urgently need a national movement for professional learning about reading. We should declare a No Shame Zone for this work—to make it safe for all educators to say, “I have unfinished learning around literacy.”

I’m all in on the No Shame Zone. And I hope that the reality of a national reading crisis gives us safe space to have authentic, humble conversations and grow together.

May that spirit of openness and continuous improvement set a course for us to bring the long-established reading research into practice.

Right now, I know I am not the only leader prioritizing ELA improvement, and I sense a shift in the national conversation about innovation in K–12 education. Nowhere is this better reflected than in the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools. Four years ago, ed tech felt like its clear focus. Then last year, during a workshop, I geeked out about curriculum with Dr. Clayton Wilcox – who would become my new boss in September (who would have thought?) – and a group of educators; together we created this fishbone diagram:

Our Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools fishbone diagram. Notice that we used the largest font to write “PD.”

Still, literacy and math instruction felt like secondary themes at that convening.

But today, after revising its areas of focus, the League of Innovative Schools have Math and ELA in column 1:

And that feels very right.

Can we accelerate this cultural shift? Improving reading outcomes, and empowering teachers to understand and implement reading research, should be talked about as innovation of the highest order. Making impactful, inspiring, systemic changes to instruction IS innovation. Let’s use that language.

In addition, the curriculum renaissance and improved PD represent innovation by many providers. Let’s applaud it.  

With only a third of our students showing reading proficiency, is there any better focus for our innovative energies? Developing literacy skills is about so much more than reading comprehension… it’s a means to help students make meaning of the world and of themselves through the art of expression, reading, and learning. As I see it, the national reading crisis  presents us with both an urgent priority and a genuine opportunity to better serve children.

Brian Kingsley is the Chief Academic Officer at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which serves 136,000 students in Mecklenburg County, NC.

Curriculum Notes

If you’d like to speak with me about the specific curricula used in my district, I should note that I joined Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in September, and we are currently evaluating the curricula used in our schools.

That initiative is a team effort. It takes a village to raise reading outcomes – something I plan to write more about in my next blog. (If I’m being honest, I have struggled a bit with this aspect of advocacy work. I don’t mind putting myself out there, and raising my voice in support of better reading instruction, alongside my remarkable peers in other districts. But I can’t emphasize enough that systemic change is about the people across that system, and the way they hundreds of people come together to pull for kids together. Look for more on this soon.)

I am so proud of our team for its work in this process, as I have been sharing in social media:

I can speak to the experience I had with high quality-curricula used in my former district, Wake County Public School System. Previously, I shared the story of Wake County’s curriculum selection and implementation process in this Education Week piece: How Systems Can Support High-Quality Curricula.

Wake County’s team selected the following high-quality curricula:

K–6 ELA: EL Education Language Arts (all-green on EdReports, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes), provided by Open Up Resources

6–8 Math: Open Up Resources 6–8 Math (all-green on EdReports, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes)

Mission Field: My Curriculum Journey

I’m incredibly inspired by this moment. Right now, I’m seeing a growing interest in reading instruction, and judging from the chatter in social media, it seems like districts across the country are beginning to have the conversation that we have been having in my district: How to we improve our reading and math instruction system-wide, to align with research-based practice?

In Tennessee, we have been a part of a local Professional Learning Community collaborating around those problems of practice, the TN SCORE network. At convenings, and in 1:1 conversations, we have been working together, and I have learned so much from my peers in doing this work.

So it’s incredibly inspiring to me to work with Jared, Brian, Nakia, and Jana Beth to take this collaboration to a national level. When I read Jared’s words in The urgency I feel around instruction – and why I look to curriculum, I’m reminded all over that we are on exactly the same journey, facing the same challenges, using similar approaches to address these issues, and seeing similar positive outcomes. I can’t wait to connect with others doing this work.

Reader, I hope you will join our PLN.

I began blogging, too, so that I can share insights from our district’s work. Here I’m sharing my first blog, on my ‘aha’ moments around reading instruction and our journey to elevate instruction with curriculum.

Robin McClellan

Mission Field

I think of my work in education as a mission field. Called to teach when I was a child, it has always been my labor of love to fight for the underdog: the Davids among Goliaths.

Yet as a product of the whole language era in my own post-secondary education, I spent the first 21 years of my career as both teacher and principal not knowing what I didn’t know. I created, planned, taught, and monitored with the very best of intentions and with the learner at the center of every action and decision. I loved my students, provided for their basic needs, encouraged and supported them, and worked tirelessly to inspire hope for a future.

Throughout the first ten years as school and later district-level leader, I analyzed district, school, teacher, and student achievement and growth data. The disconnect between ELA achievement and growth data and my own classroom walkthroughs and observations was unsettling; I fully believed in the power and potential of our teachers and leaders, yet student growth was stagnant and achievement hovered around the state’s performance: 30% of our 3-8 students were demonstrating mastery of grade-level standards on TNReady year after year. I lost sleep over it.

What was the issue? What was the problem? Why weren’t our children making progress and showing gains? I learned about literacy instruction in 1993 and whole language was the ticket, right? Oh, well then I learned about phonics instruction as a classroom teacher and that was the ticket, right? And then balanced literacy and then…and then…

My epiphany came in 2016 like a tornado rather than a gentle breeze when I was taught –through collaboration with SCORE and TNTP – that we must build students’ background knowledge while explicitly teaching foundational skills. Recht and Leslie (1988) rocked my world in their groundbreaking study; if you don’t know this research, this short video is a great primer.

I realized, with great dismay, that our work didn’t align with the research on how kids learn to read.

It also became clear that our teachers were trying to build the house – and teach children how to read and understand what they are reading – on shifting sand (weak curriculum that didn’t build background knowledge) rather than on rock (strong curriculum)…the footers hadn’t been poured.

Enter high quality curriculum.

In my district, we have seen powerful outcomes by bringing in new curriculum that is designed around the aforementioned research. Excellent curriculum has given us the instructional foundation we needed, and I’ll share more results and details soon.

It has been a journey: 3 years of learning about the vital importance of instructional materials, bringing teachers and leaders to the table to select a strong literacy curriculum, and managing the organizational shifts in thinking and practice, with the support of strategy leads.  We have witnessed first-hand the ripple of impact, and it has changed us as educators, my friends. We now know that all kids can reach a higher bar, because we have seen what happens in our classrooms when we expect all kids to achieve AND give teachers the right instructional tools.

Looking back, I now realize that I did not hold students to high expectations because I did not know, nor could I fathom, what young children were capable of learning, producing, and accomplishing. I wasn’t consciously lowering expectations, but I did not “own” the fact ALL students (not SOME) could and would rise to shatter glass ceilings that were seemingly impenetrable due to circumstances beyond their realm of control.

You can talk endlessly about problems with education policy, the proverbial pendulum, lack of parent involvement, generational and situational poverty, and apathy. Those problems are real, but they can sometimes feel paralysing. Now, I see solutions that empower teachers and propel kids, and that inspires me.

I want to share the power of elevated expectations, structural strategy, collaboration, and the immeasurable value of leveraging the strengths, talents, and voices of teachers and leaders. Within my district, and hopefully beyond, my ultimate goals are to:

  • propel educational equity for all children through advocacy and awareness of the importance of high quality curricula.
  • equip teachers with strong materials that enable them to TEACH rather than GATHER and CREATE (as they have been suffering from curriculum development exhaustion).
  • empower teachers to become action researchers who are willing to grapple with the “messiness” of change.
  • analyze student work, celebrate growth, and capture the “stories” of this journey.
  • highlight and honor the impact of the work of our teachers and leaders.

It’s time to come together as we move toward the adoption of English Language Arts curriculum within the next two years. These curriculum selections have high stakes for our kids: In a review by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, Dr. David Steiner, Executive Director, noted, “The overarching conclusions from the Johns Hopkins’ review are that curriculum is deeply important, that a teacher’s or district’s choice of curriculum can substantially impact student learning, and that—as a result—the paucity of evidence upon which sound instructional, purchasing, and policy decisions can be made is a matter of deep concern and urgent need.”

These curriculum selections also come at a time when Sue Pimentel describes a “curriculum renaissance,” with new options that are meaningfully different from the curricula from traditional publishers. They support foundational skill development and knowledge acquisition by our youngest learners. Yet they are unknown to most districts. So, this must be a time of professional learning for ELA leaders.

Dr. E.D. Hirsch asserted, “the right to parity of knowledge among young pupils will come to be understood as a civil right.” I am ready to fight that fight for kids. Who’s with me?

If you’re with me: I’d like you to join a community that’s forming around high-quality curriculum use, Curriculum Matters. My work with high-quality curriculum has been elevated and supported by collaboration with other leaders in the state, like Jared Myracle of Jackson-Madison County Schools. Now, Jared and I – and other district leaders with whom we’ve been speaking – are intrigued by the potential of a PLN for curriculum work.

If you think that a curriculum PLN could elevate your work, too, please:

I originally published this piece on my blog, which you can follow here. I serve as the Elementary Supervisor in Sullivan County Schools in Tennessee.

Curriculum Notes

If you’d like to speak with me about the specific high-quality curricula used in my district, they are:

K–3 ELA: Core Knowledge Language Arts (all-green on EdReports, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes)

4th ELA: Core Knowledge Language Arts pilots in six schools.

5th ELA: Core Knowledge Language Arts pilot in one school.