Expanding Early Literacy Implementation

Since the spring of 2016, the Leading Innovation for Tennessee Education (LIFT) network has been working to overcome the literacy crisis by providing teachers with high-quality instructional materials and aligned supports in English language arts (ELA) classrooms. 

The district, school, and classroom leaders from districts in the network started by examining their existing literacy programs and classroom practices and identifying a shared problem of practice: K–5 students were not yet accessing a high-quality literacy program that prepared them to meet Tennessee’s rigorous standards. Teachers and leaders had not yet made the instructional shifts that would support students to become proficient readers, writers, and thinkers.

Since then, LIFT districts have worked to expand and support the use of high-quality instructional materials and build the capacity of teachers and leaders to deliver standards-aligned literacy instruction. Additionally, the network has added 12 new districts that are similarly invested in driving outcomes in early literacy and have worked to implement high-quality instructional materials using lessons learned from the original LIFT districts.

Over the past five years, the network has made significant progress:

  • Improvements in classroom instruction: This year, 64 percent of observed lessons reflected the demands of Tennessee’s rigorous standards, compared with only 6 percent during initial reviews.
  • Improvements in classroom assignments: This year, 85 percent of sampled assignments were grade appropriate, compared with only 8 percent during initial reviews.
  • Improvements in student learning: This year, 67 percent of students met the demands of grade-level standards on assignments, compared with 5 percent during initial reviews.
  • Less learning loss: Although COVID disruptions negatively affected test scores across the state, the decrease was less pronounced in LIFT districts, with LIFT districts demonstrating an average 12.1 percent drop on third-grade TCAP scores from 2019 to 2021, compared to an average 16.8 percent drop in non-LIFT districts. Additionally, over one-quarter of LIFT districts avoided the drop in average test scores observed across the state.

In LIFT’s latest annual report, you can read about the lessons they learned in this past extraordinary school year: 

  • High-quality instructional materials provide a strong foundation for improvement in student outcomes. However, continued sustained growth takes concentrated focus and the ability to pinpoint specific subgroups of students for continued support and development.
  • Districts with strong systems in place can set clear and ambitious instructional priorities and see more movement in their first year of implementation. Creating strong systems of professional learning takes time, effort, resources, and intentional planning for staffing. Districts that already have these systems in place prior to adopting new instructional materials are able to make more rapid instructional improvement.
  • A targeted strategy for teacher investment in their materials is critical for improving literacy outcomes. When LIFT surveyed teachers across the 20 member districts in spring 2021, only 50 percent of teachers agreed with the statement “Overall, these instructional materials benefit the students in my district.” However, in districts where teachers are more invested in their instructional materials, there was greater instructional growth as measured by classroom observations using the Instructional Practice Guide.
  • A clear focus on accelerating access to grade-level content can improve teacher expectations. It is likely that pandemic disruptions are affecting teacher expectations. However, in districts that did not see a decrease in teacher expectations, there were strategies in place to ensure student access to grade-level content.

After years of work, the LIFT network has produced compelling evidence that high-quality instructional materials can improve both instructional quality and student outcomes. But this work takes time, a relentless focus on strategic priorities, and intentional systems to invest teachers in their materials to both improve instruction and increase teacher expectations.

In the year ahead, LIFT districts will maintain their commitment to a research-based vision of literacy, data-informed priorities, and rigorous instructional materials by focusing on four learning priorities:

  • Learning Acceleration: How can we use high-quality instructional materials to move student performance on literacy assessments in a way that increases student access to grade-level content while providing “just in time” support to target gaps in student knowledge and skills?
  • Teacher Expectations: How can we increase teacher expectations for students in literacy classrooms?
  • Core Actions 2 & 3: How do we continue to build capacity of school systems, leaders, and teachers to ensure teachers are using strong questions and tasks to provide opportunities for students to own the cognitive work of each lesson?
  • Balancing Systems & Instruction: How do we achieve coherence across all strategic initiatives and priorities designed to support improvements in teacher practice and student learning while balancing the need for both systems-level change, development of school-based leadership, and instructional priorities?

We will continue to share our learnings, outcomes, and resources as we test new ideas and study their impact on students.

Courtney Bell is vice president of strategic practice at SCORE.