Leveraging High-Quality Instructional Materials To Accelerate Student Learning

SCORE’s 2023 State Of Education In Tennessee report highlights that while Tennessee has made tremendous progress in recovering learning time lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic, achievement gaps in ELA continue to widen for Tennessee’s historically underserved student groups, and the group of students who are furthest behind continues to grow.

Leading Innovation For Tennessee (LIFT) is a network of dedicated district, school, and classroom leaders from across Tennessee who have been working since the spring of 2016 to address Tennessee’s literacy crisis by providing teachers with high-quality instructional materials and aligned supports in English language arts (ELA) classrooms. This work is all the more important given the learning disruptions caused by the global pandemic.

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

  • Improvements in classroom instruction: During the 2021-22 school year, 67 percent of observed lessons reflected the demands of Tennessee’s rigorous standards, compared with only 6 percent during initial reviews.
  • Improvements in classroom assignments: During the last school year, 85 percent of sampled assignments were grade-appropriate, compared with only 8 percent during initial reviews.
  • Improvements in student learning: In 2021-22, 61 percent of students met the demands of grade-level standards on assignments, compared with 5 percent during initial reviews.

Additionally, the majority of LIFT districts saw growth on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) in 2021-22, resulting in net positive growth across the network.

LIFT’s latest annual report highlights lessons learned this past year as the work continues to recover student learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

High-quality instructional materials are an important tool in accelerating student learning.

LIFT districts across the state were able to accelerate student learning with a strategic focus on grade-level content, student ownership, and leader capacity building. Rather than rushing through the curriculum, LIFT educators helped students engage with the most critical work of their grade as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Superintendents play a critical role.

Superintendents create the conditions for improved instructional quality that drive student literacy outcomes. Across the LIFT network, districts with senior leaders who consistently engaged in articulating a literacy vision and strategy, establishing and protecting structures to execute that strategy, and reflecting on and refining the strategy over time, saw faster instructional progress in their literacy classrooms.

Districts need a strong literacy vision to create aligned systems of support.

The pandemic created a resource-rich environment for school districts to provide schools, leaders, and teachers with professional learning and instructional support during the 2021-22 school year. In districts where support from LIFT was closely aligned to support received from other Tennessee-specific initiatives — such as early reading training and state-supported networks — instructional quality improved rapidly.

It is time for districts to shift their attention.

The focus must now shift from learning loss to aligning systems of support for students who are still behind, particularly students in historically underserved groups. Across Tennessee, districts did incredible work in the 2021-22 school year to drive student achievement and bring student learning back to 2019 levels. While there is much to celebrate, deeper analysis of the data indicates that many students are still performing below grade level; this is particularly true of historically underserved student subgroups, including Black, Hispanic, and Native students, and students who are economically disadvantaged. While the principles of learning acceleration will continue to be important for this work, strategies centered around systems of instructional coherence will also be critical to ensure that all students have access to high-quality instruction across all of the instructional opportunities available to them, including Tier 1 instruction, RTI/intervention, and tutoring.

After six years of work in districts across the state, the LIFT network has produced compelling evidence that high-quality instructional materials leveraged by excellent educators 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.

We will continue to share the network’s learnings, outcomes, and resources as they test new ideas and study their impact on students. 

Courtney Bell is SCORE’s vice president of strategic practice.