Scearce: Support policies that give children a smart start

School apple chalkboard book tile

In the last decade, Tennessee's education reforms have driven historic improvements, resulting in high academic standards, aligned assessments and accelerated growth in academic achievement for students in grades 3 through 12.

While these improvements are a great start, student proficiency still falls short of Tennessee's goals. Tennessee's standards-aligned assessments reveal alarming news: A majority of Tennessee's students in grades 3-12 are not proficient in English and math.

photo Lesley Stiles Scearce

The Nation's Report Card tells a similar story. Despite Tennessee's improvements, proficiency rates still rank the Volunteer State in the bottom half of all states.

What's especially striking is that by third and fourth grades, many students are already significantly behind, with nearly two-thirds of students not proficient in English and math. We know 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.

Clearly, third grade proficiency is an indicator of learning quality in early childhood, and, for our state, it requires improvement.

Learning begins at birth. The brain develops more in the first five years than at any other time during a person's life.

Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE) is committed to improving early education to ensure stronger academic achievement for all students and shared prosperity in Tennessee. We are a bipartisan group of people and organizations in business, nonprofit, education, health care, law enforcement and faith communities advocating to make high-quality early education, from birth through third grade, a state priority. Locally, we seek to partner with the Hamilton County Department of Education and the nonprofit community to reach our shared goal of equipping families and children to enter the public school system with the skills they need for a trajectory of success in life.

Our policy priorities include:

» Engaged and empowered parents. Parents are children's first and most influential teachers. 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 young children in Tennessee with working parents. 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. We support improved instructional materials, investments in training for early grades teachers and principals, and accountability for results.

» Stronger accountability and continuous improvement in early education. Tennessee has limited statewide data on early learning from birth to second grade. Tennessee should commit to a birth-age 5 early learning data system, developmentally-appropriate methods to measure and improve instructional effectiveness pre-K to second grade, and better support for early grades teachers to use student data to improve learning outcomes.

Eighty-one percent of Tennesseans support "major change" in public education, and 69 percent say they would vote for policymakers who support early education, according to a statewide survey by TQEE.

Tennesseans want better education outcomes and understand that depends on giving our children a smart start. TQEE stands ready to work with the next governor and General Assembly to make early childhood education the starting place for transformational change.

Lesley Scearce is president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Chattanooga.