Improving our schools: From Promise, to Practice

12/20/2018  |  By Joni Smith
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Turn on the radio, and you’ll hear Andy Williams sing about how it’s the most wonderful time of the year—thanks in large part to the parties, sweet treats and festivities of the holiday season. But as a middle school science teacher for the past 10 years, my rationale is a bit different. This is the most wonderful time of the year because I can begin to see the growth in my students and have developed a stronger understanding of how to best support each student’s individual learning over the coming months.

It’s the time of year where I reflect on how far my students have come since August, and what I can do differently to help each of my students achieve their goals in the seventh grade and beyond. 

Education is all about continuous improvement—as students, as educators and as schools—whether you’re one of the top performers, or in need of some additional support. When I look around my state of Louisiana, I’ve seen significant improvements in our K-12 education system—we’ve raised our academic standards, worked to build partnerships with educators and communities and provided professional development to teachers across our state to help strengthen skillsets. 

We’re moving in the right direction, but we also have a long way to go before every child in our state receives a high-quality education—particularly our traditionally-underserved students. And Louisiana isn’t alone. That’s why it’s imperative that every state continues to invest in the programs and resources that are working to support teachers and students, and that we identify how we can do better.

Over the last year, all states have had the opportunity to re-evaluate their plans for improving K-12 education as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA replaced No Child Left Behind, empowering states with greater flexibility and autonomy to design education plans that best meet their students’ unique needs. This include plans for how to raise achievement among the state’s lowest-performing students through targeted school improvement efforts.

Last month, two groups, the Collaborative for Student Success and HCM Strategists, convened a peer review of education experts to evaluate just how bold and ambitious states—like Louisiana—were in developing their strategies for school improvement. The ensuing report, Promise to Practice, identified best practices for increasing equity within states, as well as areas where states could strengthen their plans. The review made special note of “Louisiana’s strong emphasis on equity and its vision for school improvement, with a focus on high-quality instruction and high-quality curricula.” I’ve seen firsthand the difference that having a high-quality curriculum can make in the classroom, and know the impact it can have on transforming learning. 

Overall, Louisiana received positive feedback on our school improvement plan, particularly on the commitment to a clear statewide improvement strategy and for using and training all teachers on implementing a rigorous, high-quality curriculum. Reviewers also praised Louisiana for passing Act 555, which mandates each public school to host a public meeting for school leaders to present their action plan for improvement.

In addition to highlighting these practices, the report also included a few suggestions for Louisiana, such as developing a formal plan to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of their school improvement efforts.

Unfortunately, not all of the peer reviewers’ findings were so promising. Only 17 states had enough publicly available information for peer reviewers to analyze improvement efforts—a troubling finding given the importance of transparency and community engagement in improving our local schools. Of those 17 states, fewer than half prioritized equity. 

Whether you’re a classroom teacher, an administrator, a parent, policymaker or an engaged community member, you need to be an advocate for improving education. When making changes in education, it takes a collaborative effort from all stakeholders to join educators in the battlefield and be ready to take action as a fearless ally for student success. Resources like Promise to Practice serve as a useful tool for educating yourself in specific strategies that can make a real difference in how we serve our highest-need students. 

Closing achievement gaps between our country’s highest- and continuously lowest-performing schools is one of the greatest equity issues of our time. There’s a role each of us can play in helping to hold our districts and our states accountable for providing all our students with the quality education they deserve. As we each reflect on 2018 and look to the year ahead, what more can you do to help ensure that every student succeeds? 

Joni Smith is a middle school science teacher and administrative assistant in Louisiana. She is the 2017 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year.
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