I am a mother of three and a first-grade teacher. I spend my days with young children, and I love young children. I understand the importance of exploration, discussion, and play. I believe that friendship and fun are essential to a developing child. I believe there is a place for ‘cute,’ and I love to partake in their laughter and creative play. But lowering the bar for the content children receive in the classroom because of their age is a disservice to our youngest learners. 

Sue Pimental recently wrote that we are in the middle of a curriculum renaissance, asserting that “poor quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.” And Daniel Willingham reminds us that “teaching content is teaching reading.” Across our state, some districts are in wholehearted agreement, as ‘cute’ and ‘primary’ curriculum is being set aside in favor of more rigorous, content-rich curriculum. I am proud to work in one such district.

However, this shift does not come without critics. There is a counter-opinion that first- and second-graders should not be learning about things like body systems or the Revolutionary War. The feeling is that our youngest students should be learning about lighter, more fun topics and saving the heavy stuff for when they are older. But this line of thinking takes the progress Tennessee has made with grade-level expectations and curriculum two steps backward. The age of our students should never affect the quality of instruction they receive.

The importance of high expectations is not new knowledge. Ronald Williamson calls teachers’ expectations for their students, whether high or low, “self-fulfilling prophecy.” It is important to note that high expectations alone are not enough for our children. These expectations must be supported by quality instructional materials, as the effect of curriculum has also been shown to have “an impact as large as, or larger than, the impact of teacher quality.” High-quality curriculum is a matter of equity, providing all learners with educational opportunity.

Being in a classroom with high-quality instructional materials that present students with age-appropriate challenge and rich content, I have seen firsthand just how high our young children will rise when given the opportunity. Conversely, I’ve been in classrooms with materials on the opposite end of the spectrum and have seen the lag in achievement when the content is watered down simply because the learners are young.

We transitioned from a curriculum that presented students with content simplified through an “elementary” lens. Our read alouds were short, simple, and lacking in real substance, and there was little scaffolding between grade levels. Phonics instruction was fragmented and poorly paced, and countless hours were spent looking for or creating supplemental materials. But now, our students are presented with explicit, systematic phonics instruction. They actively and eagerly engage in high-level discussion after content-rich, knowledge-based read alouds daily.

It is amazing to hear students explain the importance of each of their body systems and astounding to hear them discuss catalysts for the Revolutionary War. It is humbling to listen as they compare similar folktales from different cultures and encouraging to hear them discuss the injustices many early Americans faced. It is more than motivating to feel the glee of their curiosity and eagerness to learn more each day, and it is heartbreaking to consider the difference in these conversations had they been held back from content this rich due to their age. Withholding access to these topics and opportunities for high-level understanding because of their age is an injustice to our young learners now, as well as in the future when they are exposed to content of substance and challenging thought. 

We have come too far in our understanding of the importance of rigor and high expectations to go back now. How do we stay the course and continue to increase student achievement and learning? We hold all students—even our young learners—to a high standard of learning and support that standard with strong, content-rich instructional materials. With Tennessee’s literacy textbook adoption on the horizon, this is an especially important conversation for teachers, textbook reviewers, and district leaders to have.

Put perfectly in Tennessee’s Third Grade Vision for Reading Proficiency, “We must give students hard work and believe that they can do it.” Our students deserve more than easy. They deserve to be challenged and given the opportunity to learn as much as they can with materials of quality—regardless of age.

Katie McGhee is a first-grade teacher in Sullivan County Schools and a 2017-18 Tennessee Educator Fellow