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 Perry Preschool FAQs 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.

We Took Our Case For Kids to the Hill!

We took our case for kids to the Hill.

Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE) conducted our first “Day on the Hill” in Nashville on Feb. 6. More than 100 TQEE advocates from across the state — teachers, early education program directors, parents, mayors, business people — directly engaged with Tennessee General Assembly members to advocate for:
• Excellent Pre-K
• Better support for early grades teachers
• High-quality affordable childcare
• Programs that support parents to help their young children succeed

Our advocates made the case that high quality early childhood development and education, birth through 3rd grade, is a proven, evidence-based solution for better overall education outcomes, workforce development and quality of life in Tennessee communities.

“It is a fact of life that to attract good paying jobs to our area, we must have a skilled workforce,” says Jimmy Harris, mayor of Madison County, one of about 50 Tennessee mayors who have formed a mayor’s coalition for early childhood education. “What many people don’t think about is that building those workforce skills starts with development early in life through learning to read, solving math problems and learning how to get along with others.”

The most exciting development of our day on the hill occurred when House Education Committee Chairman Mark White (R-Memphis) and Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) announced the formation of the General Assembly Early Childhood Education Caucus, a joint House-Senate, bipartisan legislative group that will study and advance best policy practices to support the earliest years of learning. These legislators know the research that early math and literacy skills, as well as the ability to cooperate and get along with others, by kindergarten age are proven predictors of future academic and life success.

“Despite Tennessee’s improvements, proficiency rates still rank it in the bottom half of all states,” says Miles Burdine, president and CEO of the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce. “Especially striking is that by third and fourth grades, our students are already significantly behind, with nearly two-thirds not proficient in English and math. We know that when students are not proficient by third grade, they are four times more likely to drop out of high school and 60 percent less likely to pursue a post-secondary degree. Once students fall behind in third grade, they tend to stay behind, or fall further.”

With many parents visiting the Hill, legislators found strong advocates for quality Pre-K as a featured policy within early childhood education. Our TQEE poll in September found that 93 percent of parents think voluntary Pre-K should be made available to all four-year-olds.

Kristen Griffin, a Lebanon schools parent whose daughter attended pre-k, voiced her support for Tennessee’s program. “My daughter would come home most days brimming with excitement about what new project they were working on, the new sounds and shapes she recognized and all the fun activities they had done to make learning fun,” Griffin wrote in a letter to Lebanon School District officials. “She went in a great kid but came out an even greater kid with more confidence than ever and a passion for learning in the classroom. Going into kindergarten this year, she is reading above average and is excelling in math. We couldn’t be happier with our pre-K experience.”

There are 300,000 kids under the age of six in Tennessee who have all available parents in the workforce. That’s a huge number, and by definition, they’re either in kindergarten, pre-K, a childcare setting, but somebody else is taking care of those children for a big portion of the day

And as it says in our name, our focus is quality. So, whether we’re talking about a childcare program, whether we’re talking about pre-K, or whether we’re talking about early grades in elementary school, we need to ensure that those children have the highest quality that we can provide, to ensure they have the early education foundation necessary to succeed in school and life.

From Mike, Lisa and the TQEE team

First Gubernatorial Debate: The Early Ed Moment

The debate’s one question about early education was a good one:  “Why does Tennessee have so many children not reading at grade level by 3rd grade, and what would you do to fix it? 

Karl Dean voiced support for “universal Pre-k” and making it an option for all Tennessee 4 year olds. TQEE’s recent poll showed 94% of Tennesseans favor that solution. Bill Lee called for improving training and preparation for early grades teachers. Our poll says 89% of Tennesseans agree.  Check out this short clip to see the candidates’ responses in full.


Mike, Lisa and the TQEE Team.

Legislative Wins Build Momentum for Quality Early Education

This year’s legislative session has concluded, and with the help of our many coalition partners and friends TQEE had great success advancing our legislative priorities.  Below is a short wrap up.  Please share with your colleagues and friends who may be interested, and be sure to sign up to join TQEE if you haven’t already, to ensure you continue to get news and information about our work.  By the way, here’s a link to our original legislative agenda in case you’d like to refer to it.

Defend Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten (VPK) Funding
Oppose any legislation that would erode the VPK program or its current funding stream.

Our top priority for this session was to defend Voluntary Pre-K from any efforts to diminish funding or negatively impact the program, and we succeeded. In particular we locked down subcommittee votes to prevent the reintroduction of a measure proposed and defeated last year that would have allowed school districts to use VPK funds for K-2 innovations. While we support opportunities for K-2 innovations, we opposed this effort on the grounds that it would fund those innovations by siphoning funding from VPK.

Support TDOE’s VPK Quality Improvement Initiatives
Support administrative initiatives being implemented in response to the Pre-k Quality Act of 2016.

We applaud the work of TDOE, specifically the Office of Early Learning, and the steps they have taken to strengthen VPK quality. TQEE’s role here has been informing policy makers of the transformational work that’s being led by the TDOE, and to make clear the continued need to concentrate investments on improving VPK quality. Here’s a piece we published and actively circulated to legislators about those quality improvements.

Study Early Grades Instructional Quality and Recommend Measures to Strengthen It
Support TDOE-directed study, in conjunction with Vanderbilt University, to assess instructional quality Pre-k through 2nd grade and prepare recommendations for strengthening it.

We’re pleased to report that TDOE has been a great partner in the design and launch of two related studies to assess the quality of instruction and teaching in the early grades – no legislation was necessary to get them underway. Vanderbilt University’s TERA (Tennessee Educational Research Alliance) and Peabody Research Institute respectively are leading the studies:

  • Early Grades Teacher Assignment study will explore the frequency and consequences of principals assigning low-performing teachers to early grades Pre-K through 2nd grade. This study is expected to conclude with findings by early fall 2018, in time to inform policy solutions for the 2019 legislative session.
  • Early Grades Instruction Continuous Improvement will examine Pre-k through 2nd grade instruction to better understand what instructional shifts are needed to improve the quality of K-2nd grade such that schools can “sustain and accelerate the gains” made in Pre-K.  Preliminary findings are expected late fall 2018, in time to inform policy solutions for the 2019 legislative session.

Advance Legislation that Enhances Parent-Teacher Teamwork in the Early Grades
Advance legislation that supports TDOE in piloting best practices models, like APTT (Academic Parent-Teacher Teams), that strengthen parent engagement in their child’s teaching and learning Pre-k through 2nd grade.

TQEE advanced legislation with the support of sponsors Rep. Eddie Smith and Sen. Joey Hensley to pilot a parent-teacher conference model in the early grades based on a program known as APTT (Academic Parent-Teacher Teams). The bill passed, and TDOE will launch the pilot in fall 2018 in three schools across the state. The legislation requires the pilot to continue for three years with annual reports to the legislature.  Our hope is that this will provide a breakthrough model for better engagement of parents in their child’s learning in and out of school.

 Advance Legislation that Helps Protect Children of Opioid-Addicted Parents
Advance legislation that prioritizes early prevention and intervention programs for young, opioid-affected children.

Governor Haslam proposed and the legislature passed a package of bills to address the opioid epidemic in Tennessee. TQEE sought added focus on opioid-affected families and children, and teamed up with the Home Visiting Leadership Alliance, Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, Save the Children Action Network, Children’s Hospital Alliance, and Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee, to successfully advocate for a budget amendment that resulted in an additional $1.4 million in recurring funds to the Department of Health’s home visiting budget.  Special thanks to Senators Steve Dickerson and Becky Massey, and Representative Ryan Williams, for their leadership. Early home visiting is a critical evidence-based strategy for strengthening parenting skills and supporting at-risk babies and toddlers.

We’d also like to give a special shout-out to our fabulous team members from Johnson Poss Kirby – Holly Salmons and Luke Ashley.  They’re excellent at what they do and incredibly dedicated to our goals. In fact, Holly is on her way to become an early childhood expert, having just given birth to her first child! Congratulations Holly!

Thanks again to everyone involved in moving this agenda to successful conclusion this year.

Mike and Lisa


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