Advice from a State Education Leader: Keep Student Experiences at the Heart of Instructional Efforts

The distance between schools and classrooms and the state education agency often feels enormous. How do the policies and programs envisioned in state capitals unfold before actual teachers and students? How do those local experiences in turn inform improvements to state leaders’ actions? 

In the best-case scenario, leaders make efforts to bridge the gap. This is clearly the case for Tiffany Neill, the Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for the Oklahoma State Department of Education. She leads Oklahoma’s efforts to advance high-quality curriculum and professional learning in all subject areas and brings an extensive professional background in science education. I was grateful to talk to Tiffany about specific ways state leaders can advance quality materials and teacher training by grounding efforts in classroom experiences.

Why does state leadership matter when it comes to expanding the use of quality instructional materials in local districts?

Tiffany: When work around quality materials becomes a priority for the state chief, then you have a platform to build momentum and spread the word about effective approaches across the state. While state agency employees do not make curriculum policies or decisions, we inform those who do make the decisions. We can analyze existing state policies to see where they do or do not align with the goals and efforts of our state and local leaders. We can sequester relevant data and information about instructional materials in Oklahoma and in other states and bring it together to inform decision-makers. We also have the opportunity to support the state and districts in implementing policies well. We can use funds for program support, work to understand how local districts can braid funding for teacher professional learning, and help districts understand approaches to evaluating the success of their efforts.

What are the biggest successes you’ve seen in Oklahoma with the state supporting district selection and implementation of quality materials?

Tiffany: When we started this work, we spent several years analyzing existing state practices for instructional material adoption to determine what could better support adoption and use of high-quality instructional materials – as well as which policies were outdated. Research at the local, state, and national level was critical to understand the current practices for leveraging high-quality materials to drive high-quality instruction. One important discovery we made was that we had some opportunities in existing legislation and regulations that we could take advantage of without any need for policy change. We learned we had the ability to gather data from each district on curriculum selection and analyze it for trends; if we found a large percentage of districts using the same curriculum, we could identify state support for instructional approaches embedded in those materials and align professional development to support implementation.

As we looked for opportunities to improve our state adoption processes, we moved toward subject-specific evaluation rubrics. After embarking on this updated process, we’ve seen an increase in districts selecting high-quality instructional materials. You can imagine the impact. A next phase of this work is to support districts with their own local review processes. It’s one thing to choose quality materials from a state-approved list and another to choose the right one for your specific district’s needs and understand the implementation supports required to make materials work for teachers.

Why does a “systems thinking approach” matter in this work?

Tiffany: When I was a classroom teacher and an instructional specialist at a university, I looked at classroom struggles in a more isolated way: I would identify the problem and start to work on solutions, often without realizing the problem was related to factors outside the classroom. Then I transitioned to my position at the Oklahoma Department of Education, and would hear about the same kinds of problems from many classroom teachers. It was then that I realized I couldn’t fix their immediate problem without addressing those outside factors in the system that were causing that problem to begin with.

In other words, without a systemic approach, you often miss the root cause of the issue. It’s important to take a systemic approach in order to achieve the intended outcomes you hope for.

Here’s an example: when Oklahoma adopted three-dimensional science standards that emphasized students engaging in the practices of scientists and engineers, we knew teachers needed high-quality instructional materials and corresponding professional learning to support that shift. We couldn’t expect them to do it on their own and those supports wouldn’t be available to teachers if we didn’t think about the components of the education system needed to support the shifts. 

What advice would you give to other state leaders looking to improve policies or programs around selection and implementation?

Tiffany: An important first step is to understand the big levers in the system. Familiarize yourself with your state laws and administrative rules around high-quality instructional materials and professional learning. Look across them to see where there is alignment or not, and where there may be opportunities to leverage existing laws or rules to better support teachers and students. 

I also recommend trying to understand the system from the level of end users – students and teachers. Get out into classrooms, convene focus groups – meaningful policy and programmatic changes can’t be done if you are relying on your experiences alone. Receiving authentic feedback and understanding real challenges on the ground is invaluable. When you can point to narratives from the field and showcase where problems exist, those human stories are what help to build consensus for change. 

One last thing. It can be challenging to lead this work from a state level – but when you are in classrooms where teachers have access to quality materials and have had appropriate professional learning support, you see the opportunities not just for some students, but for all students. I carry those students’ faces with me to continue doing this work.

A few years ago, I had an opportunity to meet with students whose teacher was in her second year of implementing high-quality curriculum. The teacher had received two years of professional learning and resource support to implement the curriculum. When the students were asked if what they learned in class that day connected to their lives and the lives of their communities, they quickly responded with yes and could share how and why. Not just one or two students, but nearly every student. When students were asked if they contributed to the learning of other students in their class that day, nearly every student said yes. High-quality curriculum should ensure students gain the content and skills associated with a discipline, but it should also leverage the instructional strategies that bring relevance to learning, allow for transfer of learning to other situations, and promote self-efficacy and learning from and with others. When you see all of that come to fruition in a classroom, you won’t soon forget it. Knowing that your efforts at a state level have a direct impact on students and teachers in this way is a phenomenal feeling!

My thanks to Tiffany for this poignant advice. 

Jocelyn Pickford is an education policy and communications specialist focusing on understanding and promoting practitioner-informed public policy across the private, public and non-profit sectors as a Senior Affiliate with HCM Strategists. She began her career in education as a high school English teacher in a regular and special education inclusion classroom and is now a public school parent and recent member of her local district school board. Previously, Jocelyn led the design, launch and implementation of the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education to integrate teachers into the national education policy dialogue. Jocelyn’s passion for her work was seeded during her own public school education and took root during her classroom teaching experience in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she led action research and presented instructional materials to a variety of audiences. Jocelyn earned her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College (CT), working as a professional writer and editor prior to becoming a teacher, and obtained her master’s in secondary education from the George Washington University. Jocelyn lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two children.