Supporting every student to become a strong reader and writer is one of the priorities in the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE)’s new report, Excellence For All: How Tennessee Can Lift Our Students To Best In The Nation, that sets a collaborative vision for student achievement to continue over the next eight years.

This priority is directly informed by the work of Leading Innovation for Tennessee Education (LIFT), a group of dedicated district, school, and classroom leaders from across Tennessee who are working together to improve early literacy.

For the past eighteen months, the LIFT districts have been piloting stronger aligned instructional materials in K-2 English language arts (ELA) classrooms, and they have seen promising early results:

• A third of literacy classrooms now show some or full alignment to the Tennessee ELA standards, compared to less than 10 percent during initial reviews.
• Almost nine in ten teachers feel “more supported” because of this work.
• More than nine in ten teachers believe this work “benefits the students” in their districts.

LIFT recently released a report that highlights what they learned are the key levers for improving early literacy based on their work.

Their first learning is that materials matter. We know from the Tennessee Educator Survey that K-2 teachers spend an average of 4.5 hours per week curating resources to teach literacy. We also know that many of these resources come from places like Pinterest, which may not ensure that the materials are high-quality. One LIFT superintendent shared that adopting stronger materials has allowed teachers to spend their time preparing lessons, improving their content knowledge, and collaboratively planning with other teachers to ensure their instruction is of the highest quality—rather than spending that time online searching for materials.

Their second learning is that content knowledge is essential for leaders too. To better support teachers, school and district leaders must truly understand the instructional shifts required by our standards, particularly as they relate to early literacy. This allows them to make the best decisions on things like scheduling, staffing, resource allocation, and professional learning supports for teachers. LIFT leaders frequently walk classrooms together using a tool called the Instructional Practice Guide to check on literacy instruction and provide non-evaluative, content-specific feedback to teachers. This process allows them to norm with peers and have deep discussions about nuanced aspects of early literacy instruction, authentically building their own content knowledge.

Their third learning is that change management is critical to enacting change that sticks. Rather than delivering a top-down decision about curricula, LIFT leaders engaged teachers in choosing the resources that would best meet their students’ needs. They relied on resources like EdReports to ensure the materials teachers were choosing from were high-quality, but the ultimate decision was reached by consensus. Further, they chose to go slow to go fast by implementing small-scale pilots to allow learning and course adjustment as needed. This ensured that leaders could address any barriers that arose—limiting strain on teachers and building investment. For example, teachers in one district were struggling with their district’s report card format, as their new approach to instruction focuses less on teaching skills and standards in isolation and more on holistic knowledge-building. This concern was surfaced during a focus group with pilot teachers, and the district was able to adjust their report card requirements to ease that burden for teachers.

Their final learning is that teachers need opportunities for resource-specific, job-embedded professional learning to improve practice. Leaders must prioritize finding time for teachers to meet with instructional coaches and peers to dig into the materials and plan for how to use them to have the greatest impact. Simply handing teachers new materials and expecting a dramatic change is unrealistic. Teachers must have time to explore the materials, internalize the enduring understandings of each lesson, and plan for how to meet the needs of every student.

We will continue to follow the work of the LIFT districts as they expand their instructional materials work into upper elementary. The teachers and leaders in these districts have given us many lessons to learn from as we advocate for stronger literacy instruction in Tennessee, and we hope they have more to share.