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Quality early education is key to community quality of life
By Darlene Miller and Phyllis Nichols

In the Knoxville area, successful public education is a priority for economic development. Stronger education outcomes create better options for individuals and make communities more attractive for jobs and economic potential.

Despite statewide gains that vaulted Tennessee to be a top improving state in recent years, we have a chronic problem that presents a challenge for communities throughout the Knoxville area and across Tennessee. By third grade too many of our students have fallen behind in English and math, and most of them just never catch up. To make the kind of progress that parents want, and children deserve, Tennessee must commit to build stronger early childhood education programming, from birth to grade three.

On that front, a positive sign has emerged from the Tennessee General Assembly. In February, Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham and House Education Chairman Mark White announced formation of the General Assembly Early Education Caucus. Motivated by the fact that the majority of Tennessee’s 3rd grade students can’t read or do math on grade level, a bipartisan group of legislators has committed to an ongoing focus to explore policy improvements for students prior to grade three.

In announcing the new caucus, Chairman White said, “Just as a sturdy house depends on a strong foundation, building an excellent statewide education program will depend on how well Tennessee develops its youngest learners.”

He went on to highlight the crisis that convenes their work, saying “the present underperformance across the state’s public education system will continue to burden our state, students and communities. We have an urgent priority to address chronic low proficiency in English and math by most Tennessee third graders. We can and must do better.” The caucus will meet every month to shine a light on early education best practices being performed in Tennessee communities and in other national markets. This is an encouraging approach from the legislature. The search for solutions to such an important challenge should lead us to what’s working, no matter the location.

As a former elementary principal and current Early Childhood Supervisor in Knox County, and president and CEO of the Knoxville Area Urban League, respectively, we have long been convinced of the evidence behind increased investment of policy and financial resources to boost learning in the earliest years of life. It’s no coincidence that states in the top half of education outcomes also have well-established, high-quality early education programs.

Early education works because learning begins at birth. In fact, the human brain develops more in the first 5 years than at any other time during a person’s life. Further, early literacy and math skills, as well as early social skills, at kindergarten entry, are strong predictors of future academic success.

That awareness is not new in Tennessee, but policies now need to follow. The caucus will examine effective practices across the state – and elsewhere – as a thorough step to craft a more comprehensive program of strong, focused policy based on what works.

The new caucus contributes more energy to a growing movement. A broader statewide push mounted by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education is advancing policy and advocacy from leaders in business, nonprofit, education, health, law enforcement and faith stakeholders. The legislature’s early childhood education caucus aligns another powerful partner to build momentum to create the solid foundation that our young learners need.

Darlene Miller is Knox County Schools Early Childhood Supervisor, and Phyllis Nichols is president and CEO of the Knoxville Area Urban League. Both serve on the policy council of Tennesseans for Quality Early Education.

Published April 6, 2019

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