This new year, I’m reflecting on a quote widely attributed to Maya Angelou that means a lot to me as an educator: “You did what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better.” Last year opened my eyes to the many inadequacies in the U.S. education system. Sure, a lot of the gaps we see in student learning are a result of COVID’s impact on schooling. However, with the new year, I want to focus on teacher confidence and support.
Teacher confidence is critical—and a problem illuminated by the recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP survey data released alongside the test scores showed many teachers lack confidence when it comes to addressing students’ knowledge and skill gaps as a result of the pandemic. Many teachers feel they don’t have the support to close learning gaps in their classrooms, specifically regarding content that falls outside the current grade level of their students.
As a 4th grade teacher and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, I expect my students to enter the school year possessing specific foundational reading skills so we can focus more on reading to learn rather than learning how to read. Unfortunately, kids are increasingly lacking some foundational reading skills in the 4th grade, especially as a result of the pandemic.
Unfortunately, it is common to hear teachers say things like, “That’s not my problem, these students need to know this,” or “I don’t have time to teach it, I have to move on.” I have said those words myself; but today, those words make me cringe.
Is it truly a lack of time or is it a lack of knowledge and skills that drive us to think—or say—those things? I’ll be honest; for me, it was the latter. I did not know how to teach basic phonemic foundational reading skills and I was afraid to admit it. But at the start of this school year, my class’ initial benchmark and diagnostic assessments revealed that 40 percent of my 4th graders lacked certain foundational phonemic-awareness skills. It was then clear to me that I couldn’t let my fear and instructional ignorance get in the way of a proper response.
So, what do we do about this? We can’t just throw our hands up, blame the pandemic, and move on.
Training is vital to our craft when addressing learning gaps.
I’ve been able to improve my teaching thanks to new approaches in my state of North Carolina. Policymakers here have elected to provide P-5 teachers and other educators access to a professional learning program to help ensure instruction is aligned to the science of reading and help us address learning gaps. As a result, I have learned how to integrate important phonemic skills in my daily reading lessons to benefit all my students—even my advanced readers—not just those who exhibit gaps.
Training is vital to our craft when addressing learning gaps. If a student fails to master a specific concept, a different approach may be needed. The teacher with a vast repertoire of strategies—gained from proper training—will be more successful helping said student.
And the training is showing improvement in my instruction, too. About three months into the school year, one of my struggling readers came up to me beaming after reading a grade-level book with very little support and said, “Ms. Routten, I’m really getting this and I’m getting to be a better 4th grade reader.” It made my day. With the proper support, I was better able to help my students.
It’s not just teachers who need to take steps to help children become better readers. Policymakers and decisionmakers must use all the education data available to see where student needs are and come up with targeted, evidence-based solutions to address learning gaps. My state’s approach to supporting teachers has been a positive step, and I hope policymakers in my state and others look for more ways to support educators in meeting the needs of our young people. This requires engaging teachers in meaningful conversations and creating the space for them to identify areas where they need support.
Policymakers should also use data to drive their decisionmaking. The latest “nation’s report card” is a rich data set that should inform all our work throughout the education system—from students and teachers to classrooms and schools—as we help students recover from the pandemic. My hope in this new year is for all stakeholders (policymakers, administrators, and all educators) to focus on what is best for students. They are our future. Let’s “know better in order to do better” by our children.