How One Southern State Is Using the Power of Knowledge-Rich Schooling to Inspire a Passion for Literacy and Learning

Karen Vaites and Barbara Davidson of the Knowledge Matters Campaign visit Capshaw Elementary School in Cookeville, Tennessee as part of a tour of the state’s schools using high quality literacy curriculum. (Photo courtesy of Knowledge Matters Campaign)

Two years ago, the Knowledge Matters Campaign visited public schools around the country — all of them serving large numbers of children living in poverty — that had chosen to tackle elementary literacy by very deliberately introducing students to a content-rich curriculum. These stories — of schools from California to North Carolina and points in between — were widely read by The 74’s readers.

Given the abundant interest in literacy instruction that has taken place over the past year, we were eager to get back into schools to see what might have changed. This time we chose to focus on one state: Tennessee.

Education leaders in Tennessee have been pursuing a relentless education reform agenda for well over 10 years. The state was a first-round pick (one of only two) to receive federal Race to the Top funds in March 2010, winning more than $500 million to adopt college- and career-ready standards, train teachers and principals, build data systems to track student performance and turn around low-performing schools.

More recently, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has put a real focus on literacy, working with Gov. Bill Lee to announce a $70 million statewide initiative to support district adoption and implementation of high-quality English language arts curricula.

It is against this backdrop that the Knowledge Matters School Tour came to Tennessee. The goal of the tour is to lift up the stories of schools that embrace a profoundly enriched literacy experience for all students, as well as to draw attention to schools and districts that use the power of knowledge-rich schooling to promote excellence, provide equity and inspire a passion for learning.

As it turns out, there exists across the state of Tennessee a cadre of school leaders who have already begun to do this: school superintendents, administrators, principals and coaches who — over the past two to three years — have utilized high-quality curriculum adoption and investments in professional learning as their primary strategy for improving student outcomes.

During the latest school tour, literacy experts were the reporters. This time we have asked school leaders to tell their own stories, since the voices of educators have proved to be particularly powerful in explaining this work. Over the coming six weeks, The 74’s readers will have an opportunity to hear directly from practicing educators about what their journey to improved results has entailed.

We hope you will enjoy this in-depth look at curriculum adoption and implementation in Tennessee, and that you follow the ongoing conversation it has inspired via @ClassroomWonder and #TNBestForAll. The Tennessee edition of the Knowledge Matters School Tour has demonstrated, yet again, that exposing students to meaningful topics in history, science and the arts can not only ignite a love for reading in our young children but also rewrite what effective English language arts instruction looks like in the classroom.

We hope the story of these educators’ journeys inspire districts across the country to embark on similar adventures.

Barbara Davidson is executive director of the Knowledge Matters Campaign.

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