Tennessee Succeeds: Moving from “Good” to “Better” to “Best”

By Dr. Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education


Last Wednesday at our annual LEAD conference, I had the opportunity to share with hundreds of Tennessee’s educator leaders some of what I am thinking about as I have reflected on what I have learned over the past year. Through the highlights and lowlights, I keep coming back to a few key points:

  • Our beliefs in students are incredibly important for shaping what happens in the classroom and the opportunities students have to learn.
  • Curriculum is important, and we as leaders have to do a better job of making sure our teachers are not spending unnecessary time sourcing materials.
  • But, teaching is the most important. What happens in the classroom every single day – how engaging our teaching is, how much it pushes students, how we go about driving learning – is the absolute most important part of what happens in education. We often do not spend enough time reflecting on our practice and how we can improve.

I continue to come back to the fundamental role of high standards in creating opportunities, and while I think we have done a lot of good work to meet those expectations, we can do better. We spend our time and energy on a lot of good things – but I want us to always ask if those are the best things.

So, I want to share with you some of my prepared remarks from that speech for our continued and shared reflection on how each of us can continue to improve. This is a responsibility that we all share as educators, whether we are leading a class of students, supporting our teachers and students through an administrative role, or working at the state-level.

(The comments below are adapted from the prepared remarks for the 2018 LEAD conference.)


The Reason: Tennessee’s Students Deserve a World-Class Education

Each of our students has the same worth, and we therefore set the same expectations. Each of these students is equally deserving of a world-class education. Each wants to have the best teachers, the best books to read, the best science equipment, and the best field trips. They want to go to the best colleges and work in the best jobs. They want to become the best version of themselves.

When you ask them about their dreams, the vast majority of students and their families tell you they want to go to college. A national report that came out last week said that 94% of students are planning to go to college. Other surveys show that while many families want other students to have a variety of pathways after high school, for their child, they want them to go to a four-year college.

So we have to ask ourselves: who is saying college isn’t for everyone? Is it really the students? Or is it us? I think we need to intentionally reflect on whether we are setting up opportunities and expectations for some students, but not for others. And when some students aren’t ready for postsecondary, we need to reflect on our own expectations and what role they may have played in what these students know and can do.

Let me be clear: I completely believe we have to make sure students are ready for a job when they leave high school. That is why we have put so much work into partnerships with career and technical industries and launching a new initiative focused on Tennessee Pathways. This is also why part of our accountability model includes career readiness in particular.

But we must honor the dreams and goals that students have. Those dreams can and often do change, but that should not be because we failed to make sure students were prepared for whatever they want to choose. Our job is to set them up for choice, not to make the choice for them. This is why our best opportunity to set them up for choice always has been and will continue to be great teaching and learning, for every student, every day.

The problem our students have – and the reason we are here – is they don’t know exactly how to reach those dreams. They don’t know how to plan for college and the workforce, and they don’t know how to get ready for the expectations that await them there.

That is what we are doing in K-12.

We are setting expectations every step along the way that make sure students are developing skills in literacy, math, social studies, science, music, foreign languages, and art. We are making sure they can make connections, think critically, and write articulately. These expectations all point to what colleges and employers say they need to know and be able to do to be successful.

We are providing more counseling, starting in middle school, to make sure we hear students’ big dreams for themselves and help them make a plan for how they’ll get there.

We are creating a number of opportunities in high school, whether it be through work-based training or AP classes or dual enrollment, to provide students a chance to explore different fields and interest areas, gain college credit, and experience rigorous expectations – before they have to figure it out in a college classroom or on the job.

The Responsibility: Tennessee Students Need Us to Push Them to be Their Best

Students need us to set high expectations and expand opportunities, and they need us to support them in pursuing those – even if sometimes it means pushing them further than they thought they could go. This is our responsibility.

We are not doing kids a favor when we make it easier. Our students are too capable.

When we tell our students that they get a pass because it’s hard, or it may take a long time, or it didn’t work the first time, we are setting them up for failure after they graduate.

If we don’t push kids to meet high expectations, how will they be ready to write a college paper, handle calculus, annotate a text, design an experiment to solve a problem, or navigate complex machinery? How can we expect them to be critical thinkers who care about what is happening in their communities, figure out health care and housing, calculate payrolls, run trainings, launch the next business, or teach the next generation? How can we expect them to engage in thoughtful, lifelong civic discourse, give back to their communities, and never give up on solving problems, even if they didn’t create them?

We can’t. We have to help teach them that often the best outcomes in school and in life happen when we reach the highest – even if we cannot quite reach the first time we try.

We must reject ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations.’

We know our students are resilient and capable. Many have already overcome more challenges than many of us have faced. They may have immigrated to this country because their neighborhood was under attack. They may have watched their parents go through layoffs when the garment industry left town. They may have seen loved ones die, parents working two jobs to get by, lost their house in a fire, or gone through tragedies of their own.

Talent, resilience, and academic ability is not inherent to any one class or race of students.

It is opportunity that tends to be unequally distributed.

That is our responsibility as teachers. To create more opportunities.

I want to spend some time with this question: How are we doing with fostering daily teaching and learning that aligns to our standards and sets high expectations for every child, which ultimately creates opportunities for students?

The answer is probably not well.

A report from TNTP that came out last week showed that students in a sample of schools across the country spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them. That is the equivalent of six months of wasted class time in each core subject.

Perhaps even worse: the report found that underlying these weak experiences were low expectations: While more than 80 percent of teachers supported standards for college readiness in theory, less than half had the expectation that their students could reach that bar.

Students of color, those from low-income families, English language learners, and students with mild to moderate disabilities have even less access to quality instruction than their peers. Classrooms that served predominantly students from higher-income backgrounds spent twice as much time on grade-appropriate assignments and five times as much time with strong instruction, compared to classrooms with predominantly students from low-income backgrounds.

When students did have the chance to work on content that was appropriate for their grade, they rose to the occasion more often than not. Those chances paid off: In classrooms where students had greater access to grade-appropriate assignments, they gained nearly two months of additional learning compared to their peers.

That was what was seen nationally. In Tennessee, we did hundreds of literacy learning walks over the past year, which we used to gather insight into how Tennessee’s early grades classrooms were teaching reading. Those results were similarly pretty sobering.

Overall, the lessons we saw did not reflect the demands of the standards or the instructional shifts. Only 14 percent – just 14 percent – of classrooms had lessons that met the expectations in our standards. Just 2 percent did so all the time. That means 98 percent of our classrooms are not consistently teaching our academic expectations for students in early grades reading.

That is not how we set up students to be successful.

We know curriculum is important. And I want you to hear this: teaching matters more.

A study from a couple years back found that the schools that were improving had strong curriculum, yes, but they also had excellent teaching – and that is what pushed students further.

Each of us should be thinking about how our own teaching and the teaching in our building is meeting grade-level expectations. Our students need teachers to spend time reflecting on their practice rather than spending time looking for the next great worksheet or assignment or book.

How are we helping teachers recognize what strong, standards-aligned materials and instruction look like? I want to challenge us to think about how we make sure teachers are prioritizing their time on instruction, providing high-quality feedback, and modeling what high expectations looks like. We must support teachers in clearly understanding what students can and should be doing every day in our classrooms to meet those expectations. This is the most important role that administrators play, and too often, we are leaving teachers to figure it out by themselves and not developing teachers’ capacity to reflect and improve.

We know from our educator survey that teachers are spending a lot of time – too much time – sourcing materials. In the early grades, it’s around 5 hours a week. Only about two-thirds of them think the materials they have are well-suited to meet the expectations in the standards.

What would happen if teachers spent even just one or two of those hours that they currently need to spend on Pinterest or Teachers Pay Teachers reflecting on their instructional practice and planning for how they will guide the next day’s lesson? We want to be in a world where teachers can rely on high-quality curriculum that is already available to them, so they can spend that time reflecting on the data they’ve been gathering in their class and using it to improve. We want teachers to have the ability to spend less time on the “data collection” of providing assignments and tasks and more on the “data analysis” of student work.

If we do that, I think that could change what teaching and learning looks like. Dramatically.

So, how are you, as a teacher, as a leader, going to prioritize your time to keep teaching and learning at the center of what you think about and continuously improve? How are you as an administrator going to help the teachers in your building have capacity to focus on their instruction?

Here is how we are thinking about those questions.

At the state, we launched a campaign called Ready with Resources that aims to make sure that all teachers have high-quality instructional materials so they can spend less time sourcing and more time focusing on how they are teaching. Ready with Resources also aims to make sure teachers have the professional development to use those materials and fully support standards-aligned instruction.

Think of it like this: Curriculum is like a paintbrush and palette. To make a beautiful painting, a teacher has to use the very best materials, and know the science behind them, but she also has to know how to put them together, how to react to unexpected results, and how to build on the piece to get a work of art.

The materials are important. But, the artist’s craft is even more so. That’s why great teaching is so critical.

I know this may feel easier said than done. I remember when I was in my first few years of teaching, my focus was not on reflecting on my teaching practice – it was on making the very best bulletin board I could. So, I know you may already be rehearsing in your head how you will respond to the push-back you’ll get when you talk about this at the faculty meeting next week. But let me remind you: our teachers, like all of us, are students, too, and there is so much potential and talent in those who work with our students every day. Improving teacher beliefs and their own growth mindsets matters to student success.

So, three things sum up our responsibility as educators:

  • We must provide quality, aligned resources, materials, and tasks for our students
  • We must increase teacher knowledge and skills
  • And, we must improve teachers’ beliefs in themselves and in their students

When you close the door of the classroom, these are really the only three things that matter for teaching and learning.

So, I ask you, do you know the answers to each of these questions for every teacher in your care?

  1. Do your teachers believe in what each and every child can accomplish?
  2. Do your teachers have the knowledge and skills themselves to teach the expectations?
  3. And, do your teachers have the resources and materials to teach those expectations?

The Request: Be the Best We Can

As we close, I want to leave you with a couple of challenges to think about.

  1. Believe in our students, and believe in their potential. Push them to meet the expectations we have set for them – because they can.
  2. Maximize your time on what matters. That’s prioritizing teaching and learning, engaging with our work in Ready for Resources, and looking closely at student work and engagement.

We in education spend a lot of our time on “good” things. Finding high-quality texts – that’s a good thing. But I want to challenge us about how we spend our time on the best things.

It is good to give students an assignment that requires writing. It is better to require writing that pushes students to argue a point or share a position – and the earlier the exposure to this, the better. But, it is best to have students share these arguments based on texts and facts in writing and verbally, and then critique the arguments they wrote compared to others.

It is good to read to students and model fluency. It is even better to model fluency and ask questions that push beyond recall into inference and application. But, it is best to then have students read authentically and respond to high level questions about what they have read with direct feedback and dialogue with the teacher, other adults, and peers.

It is good to teach fractions using modeling. It is even better to teach fractions using modeling with direct comparisons to decimals and percentages. But, it is best to have students explain these comparisons with their own models.

I ask you: are you moving to the best we can offer students? Or are we settling for the good or maybe, just the better.

If we as teachers never get to the best of what we expect of students, the student may never get there on her own. It is like a coach that helps his runners eat right and practice daily – both good, but that approach accepts whatever happens at the race. Great coaches don’t do that – they work from the runner’s current personal best to set goals that the runner owns and pushes toward. Then, when the race occurs, the student gets feedback from the coach and works toward the goal again in new ways if he missed the mark, or, if he hit the goal, the runner is pushed to a better personal record. Great coaches don’t stop at good or even better – they push to the best. Great athletes almost always point to coaches that helped them see what was beyond their limited sight.

This is what I am asking you to do. Push your teachers and your students to the best they can offer. It is simply not ok to just understand the expectations of the standards and internalize the shift, but not practice the “new normal” in the classroom. Resources, materials, texts, math problems, projects, assignments have to change – you can’t get to best with the same tools.

This is where you come in – it is your responsibility to ensure the tools are the best.

We also can’t get to the best with the same educator skill sets and preparation. We have to grow and evolve as educators into new abilities. This takes rethinking professional learning and drawing more direct lines from what we do in PD to what we expect should happen in the classroom the next day.

Finally, we can’t get to best with the same expectations. Our students are incredible, and they are just asking us for a chance. There are any number of hurdles that are put in students’ pathways, and we as teachers should not let our own beliefs, stereotypes, or prejudices be one of those. If we set the bar high, our students will meet it. I know they can. High expectations are a daily belief, a daily mindset, a daily culture.

You as an administrator set that tone.

We can do better in education. I know we can – and we are showing that we are on that path. So, how will you spend your time on the best things this year? How will you challenge and support your teachers to do the same?

We know what’s worked – we see it in classrooms every day. We also know what doesn’t. And now that we know better, we can do better. We can be the best.