Public education, especially early education, needs improvement at state level

Published 8:15 am Monday, February 17, 2020

In the current partisan environment, Tennessee Republicans and Democrats agree on very little. On just about every policy issue of the day — guns, taxes, health care, foreign policy — they’re typically in opposite corners.
Education of our children appears to be a notable exception.
Overwhelmingly unified in their dissatisfaction of the state’s public education system (72 percent), Tennesseans are even more united in their support for expanding early education as a fundamental strategy to improve student achievement.
Fully 93 percent of Tennessee voters — including 92 percent of Republicans and 95 percent of Democrats — agree that early education, from birth to third grade, provides the building blocks of all learning. By wide margins, Tennesseans support the expansion of investment and policies from birth to grade three to give kids a stronger start in school and build long-term academic success.
These results are from a statewide survey of 600 likely voters conducted in late 2019 by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE).
Voters’ displeasure is understandable — it’s the result of years of subpar student achievement in communities all over the state. Despite impressive gains over the past decade, Tennessee’s overall student performance ranks in the bottom half of all states. Especially striking is that by third grade, our students are already significantly behind, with nearly two-thirds not proficient in both reading and math.
That’s a corrosive condition. The dismal truth is that once a student arrives in third grade behind, he or she is likely to remain behind or fall further back from grade-level peers. Low proficiency in third grade is an obvious indication that the quality of children’s learning prior to third grade requires significant attention and improvement. It’s clear our priority must be on the early years to ensure a higher trajectory for middle school, high school and beyond.
From our survey, the mood among most Tennesseans is clear — when it comes to educating our children, they dislike the status quo and want to see change.
Voters like the idea of resetting Tennessee’s education agenda with greater emphasis on the earliest years, from birth to grade three.
They are overwhelming supportive of investment in home visiting programs (79 percent) to boost parenting skills and early learning. Ninety percent believe access to quality child care is fundamental to school readiness; 82 percent support public funding to hire more qualified child care teachers; and 71 percent say Tennessee should spend all available federal dollars to expand quality, affordable child care options for families.
Eighty-five percent support increased state funding for PreK to ensure enough slots for all disadvantaged 4-year-olds; while 94 percent want PreK to be universally available. Ninety-seven percent support investment in early literacy programs to ensure children can read by third grade; 93 and 94 percent respectively want investment for math proficiency and early workforce skills like sharing, taking turns, problem solving and maintaining focus on a task.
This is a critical time for Tennessee’s public education system — our state must make progress as a top priority for our future. There has never been more public awareness and support for early education initiatives to transform student learning.
Most of all, Tennesseans want better education outcomes and understand that to do so means that our education system must give more kids a stronger start.
(Mike Carpenter is executive director of Tennesseans for Quality Early Education.)

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