Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence

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Exploring Opportunity: Early Elementary Curriculum and Instruction

TNTP’s powerful Opportunity Myth report has illuminated how far we have to go as a nation to ensure all students benefit from four critical factors: grade-level assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and high expectations. I encourage readers to review the report. It includes detailed data drawn from classroom observations and analysis of student work, as well as student perspectives.

As the parent of a 2nd grade student, I wanted to learn more about how these factors play out for Kentucky’s teachers and students in the early elementary years – and what parents should know and what they should ask. So I reached out to an expert – Jana Beth Francis, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning at Daviess County Public Schools. She is a leading voice across the nation on issues of high-quality curriculum and professional learning and one of the five leaders of Curriculum Matters. I spoke with her about her education journey, her reaction to the Opportunity Myth report, and about her national work.

Our conversation also reinforced the importance of building knowledge of students in the early years, one of the Prichard Committee’s strategic priorities for kindergarten to third grade.

See this story from Kentucky Teacher about how the Kentucky Department of Education is using the Opportunity Myth report’s findings to guide its work to address achievement gaps in Kentucky schools.

Jana Beth, can you tell me why (and how) you began your career in education?

I graduated from Russell Independent High School pre-KERA, in 1990. I’m a third generation Kentucky educator. My grandmother and my mom were both teachers in Russell; between them, they taught generations. I attended Governor’s Scholars at Murray – which I couldn’t believe was in the same state! Anticipating a career as a corporate attorney, I took political and social theory. The teacher had other ideas – he correctly predicted that I would be a teacher like my mom and grandmother.

I went to a women’s college, Wellesley, that didn’t have an education major. I graduated in mathematics and joined one of the first Massachusetts alternative certification cohorts. As a student teacher in Boston, I used a curriculum that had been written by teachers in that district. Then, I taught in a school in Atlanta, in DeKalb County. I taught 2nd, 3rd, 1st, and then 5th grade, which gave me an intense overview of curriculum across a school.

Above all, my liberal arts background taught me to love learning and keep learning.

What is something people should know, but might not know, about Daviess County Public Schools?

We are constantly looking for ways to get better. Because we were good, and we always have been, getting better is a wicked problem. There’s no clear solution.

How do the early years, kindergarten to third grade, contribute to what students need to ultimately meet or exceed their life aspirations?

K-3 sets up the love of learning. We want kids *thinking* and doing work that’s on grade level. When I look at K-3 students in particular, it’s a challenge because we also have to teach them how to do so many things. I want my students grounded in that K-3 foundation learning, but also challenged – moving and thinking at the same time.

With respect to students in grades K-3, which Opportunity Myth theme do you find most urgent for districts and schools to address first, and why?

Students need strong instruction where students do most of the thinking.

Districts and schools need to make curriculum decisions based on a framework for high-quality instruction. First, identify your framework, then start looking for curriculum that fits the framework. You don’t change the culture of your school if you don’t dive into the expert instruction you’re looking for.

When a school doesn’t have a high-quality curriculum and teachers go look for their own materials, teachers spend too much time looking for resources, and not enough time on pedagogy – planning how to teach the individual students they have in their classrooms. In addition, 70% of the time, teachers are not in the standards when they’re left on their own. And even when teachers have the high-quality curriculum, you still have to make sure teachers are doing the work of the curriculum.

What do Kentucky parents of children in grades K-3 need to know about the Opportunity Myth themes? What questions do you suggest they ask teachers, school and district leaders?

The first and most important thing is to figure out if your child is doing grade-level work. For example, what books or other texts are at my child’s grade-level? What can my child do independently? In school, are students doing the thinking?

Susan Perkins Weston has recently highlighted an alarming pattern in Kentucky: the gap between white and African-American children triples between kindergarten readiness results and 3rd grade proficiency. What questions do you think we should be asking to help us better understand why – and what we can do to eliminate this pattern?

What I come back to is for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, we need to ask ourselves: What is the work that we’re asking K, 1st, 2nd students to do, and is there a difference in the work we’re asking them to do based on their race/ethnicity?

In early elementary, we need to keep pushing knowledge for all students. We can’t continue to build on one group’s knowledge base while another group only gets foundational work.

The Opportunity Myth report is a hard read for educators and it can be discouraging. You have to look at the collective pieces, though, or we’re still going to be talking about these same issues two decades from now. Everyone needs to take off the rose colored glasses. We are working hard – but are we working hard on the wrong things?

I’d love to learn more about your work with colleagues in other states through Curriculum Matters.

People started reaching out to me. I linked with this group because of earlier work on knowledge-rich curriculum. In public education, the emphasis is not always on curriculum. Different things swing into and out of priority. Working on curriculum and the issues in the Opportunity Myth report are hard.

We have learned that other people want to do this work, not just curriculum adoption but effective implementation.

Our goal is to foster meaningful collaboration on these issues. For example, I did some work with my instructional coaches on implementing with fidelity. I’ll put it up on the website to get feedback.

Educators and others interested in these issues can visit to learn more.

Since 1983, the Prichard Committee has worked to study priority issues, inform the public and policy makers about best practices and engage citizens, business leaders, families, students, and other stakeholders in a shared mission to move Kentucky to the top tier of all states for education excellence and equity for all children, from their earliest years through postsecondary education.