How Teachers' Insights Inform State Policy in Tennessee
Today's post is the practitioner perspective on Monday's post: What Teachers Tell Us About the Connections Between Standards, Curriculum, and Professional Learning
When I taught high school science a decade ago, I spent most weekends in front of my computer putting together worksheets and activities for my students to use in class the following week. I was constantly busy, but I spent very little time on the most important aspects of classroom prep: thoughtfully considering what I wanted students to understand, where they might go wrong, and how I could best steer different types of students in the right directions. Looking back from my current role and the wider lens it provides, I see what I was missing.
Exploring the Problem of Practice Through Research
Researchers have published a number of recent articles about the effects of high-quality instructional materials, but we were still surprised in Tennessee last year to receive reports from the 2017 annual Tennessee Educator Survey that our K-3 reading teachers reported spending an average of 4.5 hours per week creating or sourcing materials for daily reading blocks.
Our 2018 survey offered the chance to dig further into these results across all teachers in the state. As Monday's blog post outlined in greater detail, the annual Tennessee Educator Survey, completed by nearly 40,000 educators throughout the state each year, gives us the chance to hear directly from teachers about what is happening in schools and where teachers need more supports. This year, we heard that teachers across all grade levels feel like they lack instructional materials that are well-suited to teaching the standards. While 9 out of 10 teachers report that they understand Tennessee's new standards, 4 out of 10 disagree that the materials they have access to help them teach those standards. As one teacher wrote on the survey, "Please provide actual instructional materials that teach standards expected besides our outdated basal series. I spend my personal money weekly trying to find articles, books, and other reading materials that engage students and push their thinking."
Teachers also reported feeling increasingly stretched in terms of planning and collaborative time and aren't always feeling like professional learning opportunities meet their needs. These findings are intertwined with challenges around access to quality materials—teachers need to be supported by aligned instructional systems. These systems must include adequate planning and collaboration time, high-quality feedback and professional learning, and strong materials so that teachers can plan and deliver the quality of instruction necessary to help students pursue mastery.
Use of Research Findings in Practice
The Tennessee Educator Survey is one of the Tennessee Department of Education's primary sources of data to know if we are actually getting better at providing the resources that educators need to improve their practice. The feedback we have collected from educators since 2011 has been instrumental in how we have changed state supports and policy over time. Components of our evaluation system have changed through the years in direct response to what we've heard from teachers and principals about both its usefulness and its limitations. Without these critical insights into what is really going on inside schools, we would not be able to make decisions that best serve our teachers and our students.
In response to the survey finding that not all teachers and students have access to quality instructional materials and support as well as other feedback from our districts, our department launched Ready with Resources, an outgrowth of Read to be Ready, in April 2018. With adoption of English language arts instructional materials coming in 2020, we know it's important to set a vision now for selecting strong resources and implementing them well in all classrooms. We're also supporting districts as they use unit starters in their early grades classrooms.
In light of the need for professional development that better supports teachers in meeting new demands, we are also discussing how to continue to improve the Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model (TEAM), which supports teachers in their instruction through collaborating with principals and through frequent observation, feedback, and training support.
As we move forward with these initiatives, our work with the Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA) will help shape and evaluate them. In the coming years, TERA will use survey results and other data to uncover what the professional learning experience looks like for teachers across the state and which experiences are most likely to lead to better instruction and gains in student learning. At the same time, we will work alongside TERA to understand more about what the emerging research means in practice, and what the state can do to support a system that better connects the rigorous standards, high-quality curricula and materials, and the professional learning that is needed to meet this new level of rigor. We want to ensure that we honor the direct feedback we receive from educators to implement changes that are actually making a difference for them and their students—which is exactly what I would have wanted to see back when I was teaching.