In any given third-grade classroom, you can find a student who is reading at a level far beyond their age, and another who is still working on letter recognition. How does a traditional classroom teacher with 25-30 kids manage such a wide range of students? As a district leader, how do I support our teachers and ensure that they are challenging students who are at a higher level while providing struggling students with proper support?

These are the tough questions I asked myself when taking over as superintendent of Maury County Schools in Tennessee in August 2015. Within the first few months, we ditched the old literacy model to adopt a project-based focus; deployed instructional coaches (without hiring anyone); and launched a top-down, district-level approach that quickly gained bottom-up buy-in through school and community support. We also implemented a differentiated literacy program and digital library that measures reading with reading—not quiz scores and points.

Creating the Keys to Success

In my first days as superintendent, I did what I called a “22in22 Tour” where I traveled to all 22 schools in my district in 22 days. I know from experience that the best leaders are the best listeners, so I made sure to take the time to hear what school leaders and classroom teachers had to say about Maury’s administrative approach. I heard loud and clear that there were issues of trust, lack of resources, switching initiatives on a dime, and a need for truly aligned and supportive professional development. That’s when I knew I had to eliminate the top-down approach that the district had taken in the past (and many districts employ) and go through a process to determine our Keys to Success.

Over 10 weeks, my administrative team and I asked every school board member, administrator, teacher, staff member, and parent to answer one simple question: What should students know before leaving elementary school, middle school, and high school? After making my rounds inside our school community, we asked the same question to a wide variety of community organizations including the Rotary, Kiwanis, City Council, NAACP, retired teachers’ association, the County Commission, and over 20 more groups.

  • All students’ reading proficiency at or above grade level by the end of third grade
  • All students’ math proficiency at or above grade level by the end of the fourth grade
  • All students’ Math and English proficiency at or above grade level by the end of sixth grade
  • All students proficient in Algebra 1 by the end of eighth grade
  • All students scoring at or above ACT college readiness benchmarks by graduation
  • All students financially literate by graduation
  • All students participating in advanced placement, dual-enrollment, industry certification, work-based learning, or military prep by graduation.

By generating common goals as a community, we created a level of transparency that was new to Maury County. The Keys created a common vocabulary across the entire community, so everyone was well aware of our mission as a district. For the first time in a long time, this district shifted its focus from state test scores and data to the kids and what they should be able to do to be truly college and/or career ready—the way it should be.

Next page: Putting power in the principals’ hands

Just as we want our classrooms to focus on differentiated learning for students, we wanted each of our schools to create a unique plan of attack when implementing the Keys to Success. We put the power in the hands of the principals (and their teachers) to choose how their schools could best address the Keys.

Principals are the ones who know their students and teachers best, and therefore the best steps to take to reach our common goals. For example, students attending one school on the west side of the county have different needs than students on the other side of the district, a more urban area. A blanket plan for all schools was not going to work. Each school was empowered to create its own plan by engaging teachers and staffs into the Keys’ strategic planning and budget preparation; as a result, teachers entered the school year laser-focused on what they needed to do in the upcoming school year to address our Keys at a classroom level.

To meet Key No. 1’s mandate that all students should be reading at grade level by third grade, many schools requested more access to books. Our elementary and middle schools adopted myON, a digital literacy environment that provides more than 10,000 digital books to match students’ interest and ability level. When students take state exams, those scores only tell you if a student can answer a question right or not. With myON, we can take a new approach to literacy assessment: measuring reading with reading. The built-in Lexile exams and reporting features let teachers measure how close students are to reading at grade level, and allow them to provide digital intervention if students start to fall behind.

96 new instructional coaches and no new hires

Based on our conversations when building the Keys, my leadership team and I knew we had to provide our teachers with more ongoing training on project-based learning, how to use data to drive instruction, and true differentiation. Instead of hiring a variety of instructional coaches, we wanted to utilize the talent and drive of our teachers already on staff and in the trenches, doing the good work.

As a result of this initiative, we now have 96 instructional coaches—all current Maury County classroom educators—focused on working with teachers in each school to better manage their classrooms and differentiate their instruction for students at a wide range of ability levels.  Each of the coaches receive both soft and hard skills training; time out of the classroom, during the day, to do their work; and a stipend to compensate them for the additional hours they work beyond their contract.  Each of the coaches went through panel interviews at their own schools and were selected by their peers for the positions. We saw all of these buy-in pieces as a recipe for success.

Our coaches help teachers “rethink” formative assessments and assess students more often than at the end of a unit or semester. Less formal, more frequent assessments allow teachers to adjust the curriculum to match our students’ varying ability levels and put each one on track to meet the Key goals on time.

Nobody said basing your entire curriculum on seven goals and differentiated learning would be easy, but, in Maury County we’re doing it—and doing it well. With the help of our school-based instructional coaches, digital curriculum catered to student interests, and our seven Keys to Success, we’ve created a sustainable approach to educating each of our students that everyone in the community can be proud of.

About the Author:

Chris Marczak, Ed.D., is the Superintendent of the Maury County School District in Tennessee. He started his career as a classroom teacher, and accepted his first administrative role in 2009. Follow Dr. Marczak on Twitter at @cjmarczak or email him at cmarczak@mauryk12.org.