Preventing The Summer Slide

Summertime provides children a welcome break from the classroom. Summer vacations means fun – playtime with friends, family gatherings, adventure and lazy days.

But when children spend two or more months away from the regular exercise of learning they are at risk of the “summer slide.” Kids not exposed to ongoing summer learning, such as reading and solving math problems, can lose anywhere from one to three months of what they learned in the previous grade. When that happens, children start the next year playing catch up. If they suffer the slide continually in the early years, it creates a potentially life-long problem. We already know that children who are not reading proficiently by third grade tend to stay behind in future grades, and that they are four times less likely to graduate from high school.

The summer slide is especially devastating to children from low-income families.  Summers without academic practice contribute to the big achievement gap that exists between disadvantaged kids (who qualify for free or reduced lunch) and their more advantaged peers.

The good news is, there are many fun and enriching educational experiences parents, families and communities can do to halt the summer slide. We organized a few of our favorite recommendations here for parents of toddlers to second graders.

Read, read, read

Reading is the single most impactful activity for young children in the summer. A summer reading program helps maintain and advance reading and language comprehension from one grade to the next grade.

Recognizing this fact, Governor Bill Lee recently committed $5 million to the Read to be Ready summer camps for rising 1st through 3rd graders as a feature of Tennessee’s efforts to help young kids a strong start.

Schools and local libraries offer reading programs and resources so that children can read grade-level books throughout the summer.  Make it a family effort – with siblings, parents and relatives devoting regular time to reading and reading aloud to young children.

Numerous free options abound. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library sends a free, grade-appropriate book every month to children from birth to age 5.  Several websites offer free, online PDFs of children’s books and bookstores such as Barnes & Noble provide children with free books as part of sponsored summer reading programs.

Embrace family time

Visit one of Tennessee’s many public libraries or museums as a family. Challenge your child to think about what they learned from the experience by describing interesting details of what they learned or what they still want to know.  Ask them questions that stretch their thinking, such as “Why do you think that?” or “What would happen if…?”

Cook together and have the children reference the recipes and make shopping lists using their creativity and emerging writing skills, even if they are only able to draw pictures and “scribble”.  Each one of these early steps prepares them for writing in school.

While at the grocery, challenge your children to find items on the shelves by looking for the first letter in the title or a picture of the item.  Ask children to guess how many pasta shells are in a box or ask them questions about what they notice – like the cold and warms parts of stores. Shopping can be one of the most enriching learning activities for young children!

Whatever you do, make it fun and interactive.  Your child will enjoy new adventures, especially if they are with the people they love most in this world – their parents and families.

Encourage play

Although it might be hard during the long summer days, families can halt the summer slide by limiting screen time. Replace it with activities such as an art project, a nature scavenger hunt or free play outside with peers. 

Encourage your kids to play consistently and often with other children.  Oral language between children of similar and different ages contributes significantly to their reading comprehension and vocabulary, as well as their social-emotional skills – all of which will prepare them for the grade that lies ahead in the fall.

Children’s Mental Health #1 Concern of Teachers

“Without question, it’s the No. 1 piece of feedback I heard from every single group,” [Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner] Penny Schwinn told Chalkbeat this week. “There is a growing concern about how we can support our children, not only academically but also behaviorally.”

What Commissioner Schwinn heard most on her statewide listening tour, which will heavily influence the department’s new strategic plan, was teachers’ concerns about students’ mental health. While distressing to hear that mental health was the most frequent feedback, at TQEE we are grateful teachers are pulling this critical issue out of the shadows – and that the department is listening.

An approach to education that prioritizes excellent teaching, high-quality curriculum and rigorous standards is essential for Tennessee students to be prepared for life after their formal education has ended, but children will struggle to achieve academically if saddled with anxiety, depression, trauma or other mental health challenges. As the Commissioner and her team finalize the strategic plan, we encourage three essential priorities to address mental health issues in our elementary schools:

  1. Prioritize social and emotional learning;
  2. Invest in trauma informed schools; and
  3. Strengthen home-school connections.

Social and Emotional Learning (“SEL”)

SEL helps students make friends, care for others, resolve conflicts, handle emotions appropriately, and stay focused on a task -– the very skills they will need to be successful on the job later in life. Without these critical SEL skills children become isolated, angry and depressed, preventing them from learning and thriving.  

Trauma-Informed Schools

When children enter school having experienced trauma in their young lives, teachers, school staff and leaders must be equipped and supported with tools and strategies to respond with care and mitigate stress. Trauma-Informed Schools provide increased access to behavioral and mental health services, an increased feeling of physical, social, and emotional safety among students, and positive and culturally responsive discipline policies and practices that increase school connectedness. In 2017, Governor Haslam initiated the Building Strong Brains Innovation Grants – a pilot program to assist school teachers, staff and leaders in creating a trauma-informed culture. Tennessee should continue and expand these grants with a goal that every school has a trauma-informed culture.

Strengthen Home-School Connections

Parent and family engagement is not only about asking parents to volunteer or attend school events. When children present with trauma or troubling behaviors, the best problem-solving approach is to engage the adults closest to that child – their parents/caregivers and teachers – to collaborate on ways to get to the root of the issue and support each other through multi-step solutions. Absenteeism, bullying, and discipline issues are most effectively addressed via a holistic approach that brings adults at home and adults at school together to strengthen the development and growth of the child, propelling the child into a safe and productive space for learning.

Evidence of High-Quality Pre-k Value Grows

The evidence of the value of high-quality pre-k has always far exceeded reports that pre-k is not effective. That trend continues with the release of a study by Nobel Prize-winning economist, James Heckman, detailing the benefits of high-quality pre-k that extend into adulthood. And because high-quality is essential to sustained pre-k benefits, Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-k program is continuing to improve and school districts, both urban and rural, are adding pre-k classrooms. Below, you can take a look at the Heckman study and the state preschool report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

Columbia Daily Herald: State Funds Add 2 Pre-k Classrooms in Maury

www.heckmanequation.org: Perry Preschool FAQs

www.nieer.org: State Preschool Yearbooks 2018

TQEE Statement on Voluntary Pre-k Funding Awards

“High quality pre-k works – students who are enrolled in quality programs have a measurable advantage over their peers who do not attend pre-k.  The 2016 reforms approved by the Tennessee General Assembly, including the introduction of competitive grants for VPK funding, elevated quality standards across the state for truer consistency of quality.  Tennessee should continue to demand that pre-k programs receiving state investment meet the highest quality standards. The next step is to expand pre-k access for all disadvantaged Tennessee 4-year-olds and commit to a program of higher quality in grades K-3 so that pre-k gains are sustained through 3rd grade.

The fact that almost two-thirds of Tennessee school students are not proficient in English or math in third grade underscores an urgent need for change and a focus on improving early education from birth to third grade. We must be fully committed to improving the quality of children’s early learning as a fundamental strategy to improving Tennessee’ entire public education system.

That’s a policy direction and investment that Tennesseans stand behind, according to a statewide survey conducted for TQEE in fall 2018. Eighty-six percent believe that early grades form the building blocks for all learning, and 94 percent support expansion of pre-k to all 4-year-old Tennesseans.”

TN Voluntary Pre-k Makes Quality Strides

With recent news that the State of Tennessee Department of Education (TNDOE) has granted funding for Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) classrooms in 138 school districts, it’s important to underscore that investment in high quality Pre-K is vital if Tennessee is going to improve our public schools.

The immediate priority is to improve the percentage of third grade students reading on grade-level from 34 percent in 2016 to 75 percent by 2025 – a fundamental goal of the TNDOE’s strategic plan, Tennessee Succeeds.

Pre-K plays a central role in improving third grade achievement for all students, and especially underserved groups of children, including children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special needs. Students who fall behind in the early years rarely catch up in later grades when remediation efforts are costlier and less likely to succeed, which is why a strong foundation of early education is an imperative.

In Pre-K – as in all grades – quality in teaching and curriculum is essential. And quality has been a big focus of Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE) and other statewide advocates for a stronger system of early education.

In 2016, the Tennessee General Assembly approved the Pre-K Quality Act, which for the first time since Tennessee premiered Pre-K in 2005, defined program quality, standards and student performance measures.  An added boost emerged from the Gates Foundation through a partnership with the Ounce of Prevention Fund and Alliance for Early Success, titled the Partnership for Pre-K Improvement (PPI).  Tennessee was one four states chosen in 2016 to participate in the PPI national cohort of states leading the charge to make pre-k high quality and impactful.

The confluence of these efforts has resulted in numerous positive changes to the state’s Pre-K program, including those outlined below.

  • Pre-k quality has been defined. For the first time since the VPK program was founded, Pre-K quality has been defined in a clear, coherent and evidenced-based definition. All Pre-K improvement efforts are aligned to the new definition to ensure consistency in quality.
  • Pre-K, K, and 1st through 3rd grade standards have been revised. TN’s K-12 Academic Standards and Early Learning Developmental Standards have been revised and aligned in English Language Arts and Math. Standards were implemented in 2017-18.
  • Pre-K funding is dependent on demonstrated progress towards high quality. Prior to 2016, districts received VPK funds based on formulas largely unchanged since VPK’s founding a decade prior. In 2016-17, TNDOE instituted a competitive grant process aligned to quality benchmarks. The grant application set a high bar for programs to meet to ensure their programs are funded.

The VPK competitive grant application and process have been continuously improved each year, based on district feedback and data, and in 2018-19 the department experienced the most successful grant administration to date.

  • Pre-K and kindergarten teachers now have a way to monitor student learning. In 2017-18, TNDOE instituted a new pre-k and kindergarten student growth portfolio model that helps teachers track and monitor student learning aligned to priority literacy and math standards.
  • New curriculum has been adopted. The TNDOE reduced the number of state-approved Pre-K curricula from 37 options to only 3 evidenced-based, high-quality curricula. The department invested in training and materials for VPK districts to implement the new high-quality curricula in 2018-19. The department is piloting a coaching initiative in 2019-20 to further supports districts in quality curriculum implementation.
  • Data is being collected on the efficacy of VPK classrooms. For the first time since the VPK program was scaled in 2008-9, and was evaluated by Vanderbilt in 2009-10, statewide data has been collected using the CLASS tool to provide a baseline measure to assess quality improvement efforts, including instructional quality and teacher-student interactions.

Ensuring access and quality for students in pre-k programs statewide is challenging. To build on the success of the initiatives outlined above, it is important for Tennessee to prioritize early learning and further focus Pre-K improvement efforts, particularly in the following areas:

  • Data collection. To continuously assess progress of the state’s Pre-K improvement efforts, the department will need to collect data from CLASS, ECERS or other tools. Key to continued success is selection of the right metrics aligned to the department’s definition of quality, adequate resources dedicated to data collection and analysis, and successful implementation of assessment.
  • Funding that reflects the cost of quality. The amount of VPK funding a district receives per classroom has not changed in a decade, despite increases in teacher salaries and other programming costs, leaving districts to make up for any resulting shortfall of funds if they choose to maintain and/or expand their capacity. Additional investment in the VPK program should factor in the actual cost of quality per classroom, based on the state’s definition of quality and the actual costs to maintain a quality program.
  • Professional development and monitoring. Currently, there is one administrator at the department to lead, manage, monitor, and assess Tennessee’s VPK program statewide. Successful Pre-K programs in benchmark states that have seen long-term positive impact ensure adequate resources are provided to support and monitor district pre-k programs. To build district capacity to effectively support teachers, focus should be placed on targeted professional learning and monitoring for districts.
  • A systems approach to access. Demand is high in many regions for quality Pre-K programs, and Tennessee families overwhelmingly want more access for all children, but expansion is a challenge due to state budget constraints, quality issues that must be problem-solved, and the potential negative impact of Pre-K expansion on child care in Tennessee. To ensure access and quality, Tennessee must develop a systems-approach to Pre-K, potentially including blended funding, coordinated enrollment through multiple providers, and better alignment between the policies, governance structure and practices of the department of education and department of human services, which leads and manages child care in the state.

Legislative Support Signals Commitment to Improve Tennessee early education

Early education advocates across Tennessee are cheering results of the 2019 Tennessee legislative session that include a slate of approved policy proposals aimed at boosting learning prior to third grade as a strategy to improve Tennessee’s public education system.

Highlights include a new pilot to create a network of early grades literacy and math coaches to help teachers in the state’s lowest performing schools, an increase in funding for evidence-based home visiting (EBHV) programs, and ongoing funding and more robust training and improvements for Pre-K and kindergarten teachers who use the portfolio model to measure academic growth. And the Tennessee General Assembly formed a bipartisan House and Senate caucus to provide exclusive focus on early education policy.

Altogether, approval of these policies delivers a successful outcome to an agenda of the state’s leading early education advocates, said Mike Carpenter, executive director of Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE).

“This was a very successful legislative session for our youngest students and an indication that Tennessee is committed to building a stronger early education system,” Carpenter said. “All Tennesseans want better education outcomes. The policies supported by the General Assembly and Lee administration move Tennessee in the right direction of building a more robust system of quality education for children from birth to third grade and to accelerate progress that helps Tennessee kids get a smart start in life.  This legislative session was a necessary step to address the unacceptable condition of our student’s proficiency scores and begin to build a foundation that produces better outcomes.”

While in the past decade Tennessee made strides as one of the most improved states in education outcomes, it still ranks in the bottom half of all states. Most Tennessee students in grades 3-12 are not proficient in math or English; by the third grade, most Tennessee students are behind and remain there.

TQEE was formed to address poor proficiency and advocate for strong early education programs that can help students get a strong start that ensures they are proficient before they enter third grade. TQEE achieved success on its 2019 policy agenda, which included the coaching pilot program, maintaining the state’s commitment to voluntary Pre-K and EBHV programs.

Governor Bill Lee’s administration increased financial support to create a coaching pilot to support early grades teachers in low performing schools and the General Assembly provided additional funding to support EBHV programs that help connect parents with community resources to assist parenting, health, development and learning of their young children.

Creation of the coaching pilot is a strategic approach to provide early grades teachers with greater support as the state works toward a goal to increase the percentage of third graders who are reading, writing and doing math on grade level from about 37 percent today to 75 percent by 2025. Embedding instructional coaches in schools to support teachers is proven to be a successful tool to improve teaching and student outcomes.

EBHV is a nationally proven programming that is successfully applied in many Tennessee communities to assist young parents, improve their parenting skills, reduce abuse and neglect, improve health of babies and ready children for learning. Studies demonstrate that EBHV has an impressive $5.70 return for every $1 of public investment through reduction of costs for remedial education, public financial support, criminal justice and other societal impacts. “TQEE thanks Governor Lee, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham, House Education Chairman White, Senator Steve Dickerson and Representative Bill Dunn, and the legislature for supporting strong early education,” Carpenter said.

Food for Thought

TQEE Policy Director, Lisa Wiltshire, is our expert on early education. She’s a former kindergarten teacher, previous director of the Office of Early Learning at the Tennessee Department of Education, and a graduate of the prestigious Bank Street College of Education. While expert, Lisa is always learning, and we along with her. Here are a few news pieces and a book that caught her attention last week. We hope you find them to be good “food for thought” and helpful in shaping your knowledge on early education policy.

Waging the Battle for Literacy and Math Proficieny

Early literacy and math are among the greatest predictors of future academic success. That fact can be troubling when one considers that only 34% of Tennessee 3rd graders are proficient in literacy and only 40% in math. But here are a few Tennessee-based examples of  people and communities making a difference in early learning. Enjoy and have your heart warmed!

Statewide Buzz about the Early Education Caucus

The founding of an Early Education Caucus in the Tennessee General Assembly has created a lot of “buzz” around the state. Both caucus founders and community leaders have expressed their support for the caucus and their hope that sound early education policies are the product of the members’ work. Here is just a sampling of the genuine interest in this initiative:

Congratulations Governor-elect Lee!

TQEE congratulates Bill Lee on his election victory and stands ready to work with the new governor and the Tennessee General Assembly to improve the state’s public education system.

“Throughout the campaign, Bill Lee expressed a commitment to prioritize education for the success of our citizens and communities, and we are excited to work with him to build a plan that starts with improved early learning outcomes,” said TQEE Executive Director Mike Carpenter. “With the majority of Tennessee’s students already behind in English and math by third grade, it’s clear we need to make some changes to what’s happening before then.”

“All Tennesseans want better education outcomes,” said Miles Burdine, president and chief executive officer of The Kingsport Chamber and TQEE board member. “They support a robust system of quality education for children from birth to third grade to build on reforms that are working, and to accelerate progress so that we can help all Tennessee kids get a smart start in life.”

Statewide support is mounting for stronger early education policy as a strategy for overall system improvement and student outcomes. Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) recently called for the formation of an early education caucus comprised of legislative house and senate members.  Last month, 27 West Tennessee county and municipal mayors announced formation of an early education coalition as a priority to improve education outcomes and workforce development.

TQEE, Tennessee’s leading early childhood education policy and advocacy organization, urges Gov.-elect Lee to adopt a more concentrated, comprehensive early education policy agenda that incorporates these priorities:

  • Engaged and empowered parents. We advocate for policies that engage and empower parents through evidence-based home visiting programs, parent-teacher partnerships in child care and elementary schools, and school-community partnerships that expand families’ access to local resources.
  • High-quality, affordable child care. High quality, affordable child care is critical to support the 300,000-plus Tennessee children under age 6 with working parents. Child care directly impacts current and future workforce development, as well as family economic stability. We back policies that set high standards for teaching, learning and outcomes, recruit and retain high-quality teachers, and anchor state reimbursement rates to actual cost of quality.
  • Excellent early grades teaching. To boost student outcomes in third grade and beyond, instruction from pre-K to third grade must be better aligned with best practices and how young children learn. We support improved instructional materials, investments in training for early grades teachers and principals, and expanded pre-k where quality is demonstrated in existing classrooms.
  • Stronger accountability and continuous improvement in early ed. Tennessee has limited statewide data on early learning from birth to second grade. To maximize investments in public education, Tennessee should commit to a birth-5 early learning data system, developmentally appropriate methods to measure and improve instructional effectiveness in pre-K to second grade, and better support for early grades teachers to use student data to improve learning outcomes.

Some of these policies are being applied in various Tennessee communities with increasingly positive results and should be expanded statewide in future years as part of a fundamental effort to improve overall student proficiency.

A recent statewide survey conducted by TQEE reveals that Tennesseans overwhelmingly support a new priority for early education. Key findings from the Sept. 12-16 survey include:

  • 92 percent of Tennesseans say that a quality educational experience from birth to third grade provides individuals with the necessary building blocks for all learning;
  • 94 percent want Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program expanded as an option for all 4-year-olds; and
  • 93 percent support increased state funding in programs that could ensure all Tennessee children are proficient in math and reading by third grade.
  • 90 percent believe child care has a major impact on children’s kindergarten readiness, and policies to improve child care in the state has wide, bi-partisan support.
  • Nearly 70 percent say they would have a more favorable opinion of policymakers who support programs and policies to improve early education.

In recent weeks, leading state legislators have begun advocating for the formation of an early childhood education caucus to spur urgent action and advance evidence-based, high quality policies to strengthen early education programming.

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