Rich in Hope: How High Standards Are Making a Difference for My Students

I began my teaching career just as Kentucky was adopting its own standards aligned to the Common Core State Standards. My first year implementing the standards was exhausting. I was a first year teacher, and the standards weren’t just new to me – they were new to all of my colleagues, and they were definitely new to my students.I was afraid of a lot of things: I didn’t have a mentor or professional learning community. The textbooks I had were not aligned to our new, higher standards. I had no way of finding materials for my students. More than anything, I was simultaneously in awe of and terrified by the rigor of the new standards. I knew that my students would have gaps in their knowledge and skills in those first years of implementation.

Although I was nervous, I knew Kentucky was onto something great, and I knew with time, students would come to eighth grade more and more prepared for the rigor I needed to design my class around to prepare them for the colleges and careers they aspired to.

My first group of students weren’t prepared, and I was still learning the standards myself. I wish I could have done more to support them.

teacher-barnett-high-standards-quoteNow five years later, it’s clear the standards are working for our state – and making a real difference in how prepared my students are for high school, and later, college or their careers. Students come to my class fully prepared. The math teachers at my school do an amazing job preparing students for the major focus of eighth grade math. My students are able to make connections between the skills they learned before eighth grade and the skills they are learning now.

Last year, I had a student named Logan who has always struggled with math. In middle school, he scored an apprentice (the second of four achievement levels) on Kentucky’s standardized assessment. By eighth grade, he was distinguished (level four). I know his growth is the result of a variety of factors, but learning designed around high standards is certainly one of the most important ones.

Logan’s growth wasn’t just on our state’s standardized assessment – it was also in the ways he thought about and approached math. During a lesson about multi-step equations, Logan raised his hand to inform me that he had been doing equations since he was in third grade. The only difference, he explained, was that in third grade he used boxes to express variables. He went on to explain that in sixth grade, he was introduced to variables in the form of letters, in seventh grade he learned about coefficients and constants, and now, in eighth grade, he was learning to perform mathematical operations to reduce equations to two-step equations, just like one would do with fractions.

Witnessing Logan’s level of understanding about coherence – the connections among skills – across mathematics was unbelievable to me.  He understood that his learning was carefully connected from grade to grade, and that each skill was not new, but instead an extension of something he’d already learned.  I’ve never been more proud as a teacher.

When he received his certificate for scoring distinguished in mathematics, he took a picture of it and sent it to me on social media. He said that was his proudest moment of his educational career because he knew had all the tools he needed to be successful from now on. Little did he know that it was one of the proudest moments in my career.

The community where I live and work is very financially poor. Every student at our school receives free or reduced lunch. Some of my students have no home; they sleep at a campground in a camper.  But they are rich in hope, and a lot of this hope comes from the high quality education they receive as a result of high standards.

My students deserve the highest quality of education possible. As a teacher, I know that I must hold my students to the high standards so that they have a chance to do whatever they want with their lives.

High standards have changed the way my students think about themselves. High standards will help them have a chance to score well on the ACT. High standards will help them be accepted into colleges and receive scholarships or grants to help them pay. High standards are the key for my students achieving more than what their current lives tell them they can be.

Stephanie Barnett is a 3rd grade teacher in Kentucky.