Going Deeper With Early Literacy Implementation

In SCORE’s report, Excellence For All: How Tennessee Can Lift Our Students To Best In The Nation, one of the five key priorities is supporting every student to become a strong reader and writer. Leading Innovation for Tennessee Education (LIFT), a group of dedicated district, school, and classroom leaders from across Tennessee, has been working on just that for the past two years by providing teachers with high-quality, aligned instructional materials in English language arts (ELA) classrooms.

Although large-scale change efforts frequently take several years to see substantial change, LIFT has seen promising early results:

• More than half of observed lessons demonstrated full or partial alignment to the standards, compared to about 10 percent in spring 2016
• Teachers new to the materials demonstrated stronger instruction after one year of use than the original pilot teachers demonstrated in their first year of use
• Sixty-three percent of assignments collected demonstrated strong or excellent alignment to standards, compared to fewer than 10 percent in spring 2016
• Nearly 8 in 10 parents agreed that their child is a better reader due to the instruction s/he is receiving in school

The group recently released an annual report highlighting what they have learned this past year as they have worked to go deeper with early literacy implementation.

The first lesson they highlight is that materials-specific professional learning experiences should be strategically sequenced. The LIFT network started grounding capacity building in the “Concerns-Based Adoption Model (CBAM)”– a change management framework that emphasizes a predictable progression to implementing changes.

Broadly speaking, the trajectory of support in LIFT districts has included three phases:

• Phase 1: Establish regular routines and engage in consistent protocols for unit and lesson preparation.
• Phase 2: Deepen and refine unit and lesson preparation.
• Phase 3: Establish regular routines and engage in consistent protocols for reflection on student learning; and employ instructional strategies that give all students the chance to own the learning.

This strategic sequencing of professional learning led to the strong start of teachers new to the materials, while also providing ongoing support and opportunities for improvement for the original pilot teachers.

The second lesson they highlight is that conditions for success should be identified prior to implementation at scale.These conditions for success include building teacher and leader capacity, as well as setting up systems, support structures, and clear communications and expectations.

LIFT leaders saw this in practice when teachers new to materials demonstrated stronger and quicker gains in their first year of implementation than the gains of the original pilot teachers. LIFT posits that this surge of growth is due to getting wiser about how to roll out materials, as the pilots gave them a safe space for risk-taking and quick learning. Additionally, by investing in teacher expertise, the learnings of the pilot teachers seamlessly transferred to the teachers new to the materials.

The third lesson they highlight is that strong implementation at scale requires attention to each layer of the “vertical spine.” This entails strengthening every level—from the classroom teacher all the way to the director of schools. Ensuring that leadership is not only distributed, but that each level is meaningfully contributing to the overall system is critical to successful implementation. When the district is clear with leaders at every level that improving literacy is a top priority, any obstacles that may arise are addressed, rather than lost in the shuffle.

The last lesson they highlight is that creating and sustaining momentum requires focused and relentless district leadership. Although the rubber meets the road at the classroom-level, the superintendent sets the direction of the work and clears obstacles along the way so that the work can move forward and achieve results for kids. This leadership includes things like:

• Convening sensitive budget conversations
• Thinking creatively about sources of funding
• Protecting key staff members from “initiative overload”
• Communicating district priorities to a range of audiences
• Modeling reflective practice by engaging in data stepbacks
• Pulling together teams that may otherwise operate in silos

As the LIFT network continues their implementation work throughout the 2018-19 school year, they will focus on capacity building to ensure the early progress they have seen is sustained and deepened.

Courtney Bell is the Director of Educator Engagement at the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).

(This post also appeared on the SCORE blog at tnscore.org.)