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Research Agenda

The Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA) measures its success not simply by the number of academic papers published, but by the extent to which its work changes the way educators and policymakers think and act. To that end, TERA is committed to producing an expanding body of knowledge on a set of interrelated areas of focus that figure prominently in the state’s school improvement strategies.

Its research agenda is determined by a joint steering committee representing Peabody College and the Tennessee Department of Education. Specific research questions are informed by members of a broad-based Advisory Committee representing Tennessee education groups and stakeholders.

Based on that input, the Tennessee Education Research Alliance has prioritized four areas of focus:

  • Improving early reading,
  • Reimagining state support for professional learning,
  • Driving improvement in low-performing schools, and
  • Strengthening Tennessee's education labor market.

Improving early reading.

While achievement gains among Tennessee’s students have outpaced that of the nation in recent years, the progress made in reading in the early grades has lagged behind that in other grades and subjects. In response, the state has prioritized increasing the percent of Tennessee students who are proficient readers by third grade.

To inform those efforts, the Tennessee Education Research Alliance plans to investigate:

  • The effectiveness of TDOE’s Read-to-be-Ready initiatives, including the Coaching Network.
  • Implementation of Tennessee’s Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTI2) model for identifying and meeting the needs of students at different performance levels.
  • The relationship between educator preparation programs, state structures to support early reading instruction, and instructional practices employed in the classroom.

Reimagining state support for professional learning.

Consensus among many stakeholders is that more effective approaches to professional learning are needed for Tennessee to build on its educational progress of recent years. While an increasing number of the state’s teachers see evaluation as supporting improvement in practice, many also report that they are not receiving helpful feedback.

To address these challenges, the Tennessee Education Research Alliance will seek to better understand the instructional guidance teachers receive—from peers, from administrators, and from their district and the state—and how the state can make that guidance more coherent and effective.

Specific topics to explore in this area include: 

  • The content and nature of the feedback teachers receive as part of evaluation.
  • Variations across schools in professional learning and instructional supports.
  • Analysis of evaluation data to identify the circumstances in which instructional improvement occurs.

Driving improvement in low-performing schools.

Like many states, Tennessee has sought to find the right approach toward intervening in persistently low-performing schools. The Tennessee Education Research Alliance is building on an existing body of knowledge on school turnaround efforts in the state and elsewhere to better understand the dynamics of chronic underperformance and the ways in which different intervention models can change them.

Among the related topics the Tennessee Education Research Alliance is studying:

  • The various instructional supports in place in different state and district turnaround efforts across Tennessee, including the Achievement School District (ASD) and district-managed Innovation Zones or iZones.
  • Student and staff mobility within low-performing schools.
  • The characteristics of educators who succeed in the most challenging schools, and effective strategies to recruit and retain them.

Strengthening Tennessee’s education labor market.

All school improvement strategies are ultimately implemented by teachers and school leaders, and hence success depends on the strength of the state’s education workforce. An ongoing objective of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance is to better understand the human capital needs of Tennessee’s schools, and how those needs can be more effectively addressed by strategies related to educator preparation, recruitment, placement, retention, and compensation.

Specific topics for investigation in this area include:

  • Factors in the success of first-year teachers, including preparation programs and school and district support strategies.
  • The reliability and validity of tools for screening pre-service teaching candidates.
  • Recruitment and retention of teachers and leaders of color.  
  • The impact of different approaches toward teacher preparation on teaching practice.