Legislative Support Signals Commitment to Improve Tennessee early education

Early education advocates across Tennessee are cheering results of the 2019 Tennessee legislative session that include a slate of approved policy proposals aimed at boosting learning prior to third grade as a strategy to improve Tennessee’s public education system.

Highlights include a new pilot to create a network of early grades literacy and math coaches to help teachers in the state’s lowest performing schools, an increase in funding for evidence-based home visiting (EBHV) programs, and ongoing funding and more robust training and improvements for Pre-K and kindergarten teachers who use the portfolio model to measure academic growth. And the Tennessee General Assembly formed a bipartisan House and Senate caucus to provide exclusive focus on early education policy.

Altogether, approval of these policies delivers a successful outcome to an agenda of the state’s leading early education advocates, said Mike Carpenter, executive director of Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE).

“This was a very successful legislative session for our youngest students and an indication that Tennessee is committed to building a stronger early education system,” Carpenter said. “All Tennesseans want better education outcomes. The policies supported by the General Assembly and Lee administration move Tennessee in the right direction of building a more robust system of quality education for children from birth to third grade and to accelerate progress that helps Tennessee kids get a smart start in life.  This legislative session was a necessary step to address the unacceptable condition of our student’s proficiency scores and begin to build a foundation that produces better outcomes.”

While in the past decade Tennessee made strides as one of the most improved states in education outcomes, it still ranks in the bottom half of all states. Most Tennessee students in grades 3-12 are not proficient in math or English; by the third grade, most Tennessee students are behind and remain there.

TQEE was formed to address poor proficiency and advocate for strong early education programs that can help students get a strong start that ensures they are proficient before they enter third grade. TQEE achieved success on its 2019 policy agenda, which included the coaching pilot program, maintaining the state’s commitment to voluntary Pre-K and EBHV programs.

Governor Bill Lee’s administration increased financial support to create a coaching pilot to support early grades teachers in low performing schools and the General Assembly provided additional funding to support EBHV programs that help connect parents with community resources to assist parenting, health, development and learning of their young children.

Creation of the coaching pilot is a strategic approach to provide early grades teachers with greater support as the state works toward a goal to increase the percentage of third graders who are reading, writing and doing math on grade level from about 37 percent today to 75 percent by 2025. Embedding instructional coaches in schools to support teachers is proven to be a successful tool to improve teaching and student outcomes.

EBHV is a nationally proven programming that is successfully applied in many Tennessee communities to assist young parents, improve their parenting skills, reduce abuse and neglect, improve health of babies and ready children for learning. Studies demonstrate that EBHV has an impressive $5.70 return for every $1 of public investment through reduction of costs for remedial education, public financial support, criminal justice and other societal impacts. “TQEE thanks Governor Lee, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham, House Education Chairman White, Senator Steve Dickerson and Representative Bill Dunn, and the legislature for supporting strong early education,” Carpenter said.

Literacy Coaching for Child Care Teachers Drives Big Wins for Kids

Of all the education investments where Tennessee has seen a positive impact made with public funding, one with the most promise may be early literacy coaching in child care.

The state’s child care landscape is a hodgepodge of mixed providers with frontline personnel having varying degrees of experience and ability. Teaching jobs often pay less than positions in the service industry, so it can be tough to find skilled teachers who are prepared and equipped to give kids quality instruction.

Early Literacy Matters (ELM) program, a joint venture between the Tennessee Departments of Education and Human Services, was created to meet just that need, providing six hours of orientation on basic child literacy development training to child care teachers. By the end, teachers have received specific instructional strategies that help young children achieve important gains in reading skills, comprehension and vocabulary. And the impact on kids? Profound. In the state’s ELM pilot, the percentage of kids who moved up one or more levels in alphabetic principles doubled; phonological awareness rose 50 percent; comprehension quadrupled.

Felicia Spratley, an ELM coach in East Tennessee, tells how one of her sessions worked.

“I went in to coach Module 2 Literacy, ‘Rich Environments, Experiences, and Exchanges.’ While I was in the room observing center time play, I noticed that the students were arguing and complaining to the teacher to fix every problem,” Spratley says. “I began to coach the teacher on the appropriateness of interactive play, classroom environment, and how to help students manage their room and conversations. She was excited to see how the students were interacting and learning to solve their own conflicts. She was concerned about what people would think with the room so ‘chaotic’ and ‘out of order.’ I explained that this type of play [centered on interactions between peers] was developmentally appropriate. We then began to look at her room and ways she could make it a room that even she would enjoy again. When I went back the next month, her room was completely transformed. She was so excited to show me her room and the students were as well.”

Early literacy training is all about offering young children high-quality, engaging learning environments, experiences and interactions that embed language and literacy instruction. When classroom teachers increase the number and quality of books to which children are exposed, in addition to providing meaningful opportunities to practice early writing and fine motor skills (such as playing with small objects or molding clay that strengthens finger muscles) children develop the skills that are precursors to reading and writing. These experiences at an early age are crucial, as the most rapid development period in a child’s life happens before they reach five years old.

“Just building that foundation of oral language and exposure and the intentionality behind the developmentally appropriate practices of what we do has been neat to see,” says Mindy Rainey, an ELM coach in Middle Tennessee. Coaching a wide range of child care teachers who had everything from a high school diploma to a master’s degree, she says the gains they saw were immediate: kids’ development jumped in areas from phonological awareness to print concepts to alphabet awareness. Based on feedback, ELM staff added a second six-hour training block on developmentally appropriate practices in the program’s second year.

Rainey says that she could see the impact just a little bit of coaching had on a child care center. These were teachers in jobs that can sometimes be high stress and wanted someone to listen to them and provide some instruction.

“As we worked through them, we would talk about great things they were already doing in their room and also what excited them about the new content and specifically what they would like to try to implement,” Rainey says. “I’d like to say that it was always great conversations and excitement, but there were also the days of ‘this is too much, I can’t do this, I don’t have the resources or the time to change anything.’ Those were the times they just needed someone to listen, to say ‘I’m on your side, I get it.’ Out of one of those days came a desire to make some real changes to a classroom. The center was in the process of making a few room adjustments and one of the teachers I was working with had a room affected by the change.

“However, the changes weren’t happening fast and disruptions were taking place. The room she was currently in was being converted to a toddler room which meant adding sinks and moving centers and shelves. We talk about ideas she had and what she’d like to enhance if she had the opportunity. She wanted to refresh her centers and add a writing center. After talking to the director, she said go for it! She even worked late one afternoon for us to have a few hours access to the room without children. Together, we planned and put into action Module 4, ‘Learning Spaces and Activities.’ Centers were adjusted and a writing/free art center was created. She was so proud and rightfully so.”

A year later, that same teacher had implemented an interactive picture center for her kids, one of the goals set by working with ELM.

As with all the changes teachers made through this coaching program, the real beneficiaries were the children whose early literacy skills grew tremendously, resulting in immediate joy and engagement in learning; and more importantly, a strong foundation for future academic success.

Athletes Aren’t the Only Ones Who Need Coaches

March Madness is behind us for this year but boy what a season! Hats off to Virginia for staying the course and finishing strong. The season finish was a testament to hard work, perseverance, and teamwork. It was also a testament to good coaching and unrelenting practice, which offers a parallel to excellent teaching.

Tennessee has staked a claim to significantly increase the percentage of our 3rd graders who are reading, writing and doing math on grade level from approximately 37% for literacy and 40% for math to at least 75% by 2025. If any effort requires an abundance of hard work, perseverance and teamwork it is surely this one!

So far, Tennessee’s state and district leaders, principals, teachers, families, and students are stepping up to the challenge, but hard work by itself does not win championships. The people who are going to get us to the season end with a win are teachers – and as talented as they are, they still need our support.

To improve 3rd grade student outcomes, teaching in pre-k through 3rd grade must be strengthened, and on-the-job coaching is one of the most successful tools to improve teaching.

Why do teachers need coaches?

Just like athletes, teachers at all skill levels do better with good coaching. Whether a first time or veteran teacher, there are always opportunities to improve and new things to learn.  And contrary to popular understanding, teaching early grades is at least equally as complex as teaching older students.  That’s because early grades teachers, preK-3rd grade are expected to teach multiple content areas (literacy, language, math, science, and social studies) while also being knowledgeable about early childhood development and skilled at using instructional practices especially tailored to how young children learn. A new opportunity for Tennessee’s teachers to up their game came recently with implementation of the new Tennessee Academic Standards. Learning and adapting teaching to those new standards has been no easy task, and that learning work is still in full swing.  Without training and coaching support, teachers can easily feel frustrated and alone.

Coaches play a critical role in supporting teachers, especially when they are early grades teaching experts themselves. Coaches can provide teachers with new ideas, tools and resources to tackle instructional challenges. Coaches help teachers examine, understand and prioritize standards, and align their lessons and curricular activities to those standards. Coaches also help teachers employ the most effective and developmentally-appropriate instructional practices for the age and grade they teach. A good coach serves as a trusted advisor and sounding board for teachers, providing a safe way for teachers to tackle their own unique challenges in teaching, as well as to build on teachers’ unique strengths.

What does good coaching look like in practice?

Coaches use several different types of strategies and tools to build trust with teachers and engage them in the improvement process. Coaches often observe teachers in action and provide real-time feedback on what could be improved, as well as encouragement to continue exemplar practices. Coaches model highly effective practices for teachers and/or co-teach specific lessons and activities together with teachers. A coach may also facilitate learning with a small group of grade-level teachers or cross-grade level group around a common problem of practice. This is beneficial to build capacity of all teachers in a school, together. Much like athletes, learning the rules and proper techniques is not enough, teachers must practice new methods and techniques (often many times) to truly master them.

What is the role of the school leader in a coaching initiative?

Effective principals ideally operate as teacher coaches, but in reality they are frequently pulled in many directions. As much as they want to be in classrooms guiding instructional practice, they have many other responsibilities. That is when an academic coach devoted to teacher improvement becomes critical to the success of the school.

Principals play an important role in the success of any coaching initiative. First and foremost, a principal and coach should collaborate with teachers on shared goals and progress monitoring. Principals should also block and tackle for coaches and teachers, ensuring they have what they need to succeed, such as training, materials and ample time for coaching and grade-level planning. The principal is also responsible for welcoming and integrating a coach into the school-based leadership team. This ensures trust, cohesiveness and shared goals that anchor and accelerate the coaching and capacity-building work. The principal is also responsible for evaluating and supporting coaches to ensure teachers’ needs are being met.

March Madness may be over, but in Tennessee the championship game in early education is just beginning. Who will win depends entirely on what we do to support our greatest assets – our teachers and their students.

By Lisa Wiltshire, TQEE Policy Director

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