ListeningTourEvery year, SCORE releases a comprehensive report on the state of education in Tennessee that reviews progress and sets priorities for approaching challenges in the coming year. For example, this year’s report highlighted rigorous standards and assessments, effective school leadership, access to great teaching, using technology to enhance instruction, and supporting students from kindergarten through career as the most important areas of focus for the work in Tennessee in 2014.

But where do these priorities come from? The development of our annual report is of course an in-depth process, but it begins by talking to the people who are closest to the work of educating students: teachers and principals. We know that the best written and best funded education policies are useless if they do not work effectively in schools and classrooms, which means that our work must start on the ground floor.

In this spirit, SCORE’s Director of Data and Research Drew Jacobs and Director of Policy Alyssa Van Camp have been travelling all over Tennessee to conduct focus groups with teachers and principals and find out what is happening in their districts, schools, and classrooms. I sat in on one of the Nashville groups, and I gained tremendous insight into how statewide policies are impacting teaching and learning in Middle Tennessee.  Among my main takeaways from the session:

  1. Tennessee’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards has deepened content knowledge for both teachers and students. Teachers agreed that a lesson truly aligned with the standards ensures better student understanding and requires the instructors themselves to have a stronger grasp of what they’re teaching.
  2. English and math teachers urgently need an assessment that is aligned to the new standards, plus the technology and infrastructure to administer it. Although most teachers in the group are implementing the new skills-based standards in their classrooms, they and their students are still being held accountable to an assessment that does not validly measure what students have learned. This incongruity is causing great frustration for everyone involved.
  3. Student data are extremely useful for improving instruction, when teachers are trained to use them correctly. Particularly when discussing the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, teachers who had been exposed to the student data available to them said that it was extremely helpful in informing how they teach.  However, few instructors seem to be aware of what data are available to them and how to access the information.

Of course, this is only three of my several takeaways from one 90-minute session with a handful of teachers. This summer’s focus group tour encompasses eight Tennessee cities and more than 20 focus groups over a two-week period.  Once these groups have been wrapped up, we will continue to gather input from educators, state officials, students, community members and our partner organizations.  The result will be a brand new set of education priorities for Tennessee to be released in January.