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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