Shifting culture and transforming learning outcomes

By Carrie Bishop, Hamilton County Department of Education

I am proud to be a public school teacher in the fastest-improving state in the nation.  Not only do I teach in Tennessee’s public schools, I also have two daughters who attend a public high school in Hamilton County. My oldest daughter is a senior, so being ready for success after high school is very real to me. As Tennessee raises the bar for students and teachers, TNReady shows us what work we have to do and gives us the specific information we need to plan a purposeful and intentional response. As a teacher and a mom, I understand that achievement is personal. Behind those scores are children and their future opportunities. When I look at some of the students’ scores, I have to remind myself that this is a data point on a path, and we are in this for the long haul. However, I also have to ask myself, So, what are you going to do differently? Change can be uncomfortable, but students should never be the victims of our unwillingness to make changes in ourselves. I have seen firsthand the impact that increased accountability can have in transforming outcomes of teaching and learning.

A few years ago, my school was on the Focus school list due to achievement gaps between groups of students (bottom 10 percent of the state in terms of subgroup performance). We were not where we wanted to be, and we did not like the story that the data told about our school. Accountability forced us to look at our practices.  We had many hard conversations and eventually adopted a “no excuses” attitude, dug in, and got to work. A culture shift happened. We began collecting data on students, comparing data on groups of students, and asking questions about the factors and opportunities that affected their success. We also read a book together with practical tips and strategies, and we responded by adjusting our instruction. As a result, this year our school earned a Level 5 Composite on TVAAS for the first time ever, indicating that students at our school are demonstrating the highest rate of growth. Those results affirm what we have witnessed. Students at our school are more consistently engaged in high-quality, standards-based learning experiences, and we have elevated our teaching practice. We saw an increase in positive, growth-oriented mind-sets among students and teachers. We saw our students setting goals and having more in depth conversations about their current learning.

We saw tremendous collective growth in our students, but one particular student comes to mind. He was a student who was athletic, respectful, and well-rounded. However, the data suggested that he had some serious deficiencies in reading comprehension. During the school year his family moved houses, he became increasingly preoccupied with the social aspects of middle school, and his motivation and effort declined. Several key pieces of data pointed to the need for him to be in tier three RTI for literacy. I recommended that this student receive tier three literacy intervention, and I checked in with him often and closely monitored his progress in class. I worked hard to build a positive relationship with him and to make sure that he knew that I cared. The student also received guided reading instruction, and his effort and engagement improved. The student was consistently reading for meaning, communicating more clearly, and answering questions thoroughly and thoughtfully. As a teacher I value when I see students demonstrate mastery on a test because it validates that the learning I see happening will transfer to future situations. When the TNReady scores returned,  I was overjoyed to see that he had tremendous growth, moving from a previous percentile ranking of 37 in 2015 to a new ranking of 81 in 2017!  Even with the more rigorous assessment, he scored markedly higher than he had scored two years earlier.

Based on my experiences, I believe that accountability can be good. When we look at the statewide TNReady proficiency results, we can all agree that we are not yet where we want to be.  I believe that how we respond in this important moment will determine what future opportunities are available for our students. Each school and teacher can identify successes and areas for growth. TNReady is a critical piece because it provides more in-depth feedback and detailed information about students than previous statewide tests. It gives us information about a student’s ability to solve problems, think critically, and communicate clearly. This is good news for students because it checks to make sure that they are receiving high-quality instruction that truly prepares them for the real world.  Raising the bar for proficiency is a first step. Now, we must get more students to achieve at these levels because this improves students’ lives and their future opportunities.

 Carrie Bishop teaches eighth-grade English language arts at Hixson Middle School and was named HCDE’s 2015-2016 Middle School Teacher of the Year. Prior to teaching middle school, Bishop taught first-grade and was selected Walker County Teacher of the Year in 1998. Carrie was a Public Education Foundation Leadership Fellow and is currently a Public Education STEM Fellow. She was named Most Outstanding Graduate Student while she earned a Master’s degree in curriculum and instruction in 2010 from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Bishop is the English Language Arts Department Chair and Spelling Bee Coordinator. She is married to her husband of 23 years and has two teenage daughters who attend Hixson High School. Follow her on Twitter at @Carriebchatt.