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Policy Blueprint

An Urgent Need for Change

In the last decade, Tennessee’s education reforms have driven historic improvements, resulting in high academic standards, standards-aligned assessments of student progress, and some accelerated growth in statewide academic achievement.

But despite improvements…. the vast majority of students in tested grades (3-12) are still far from proficient in reading and math.

Especially striking is that by 3rd grade Tennessee’s students are already significantly behind, with nearly two-thirds not proficient in English and math.

If a student is not proficient by third grade, they’re four times more likely to drop out of high school and 60% less likely to pursue a post-secondary degree. As Tennessee data demonstrates, once students fall behind in third grade, they tend to stay behind, or fall further, in subsequent years.

Low proficiency in third grade is an indication that the quality of children’s prior learning experiences requires significant improvements.

Children are born learning. In fact, the brain develops more in the first five years than at any other time during a person’s life. Deficits in early literacy and math skills have been documented beginning at 9 months and widening from there along family income lines.

Educational achievement and life success requires a strong early learning foundation, from birth through third grade.

Our Policy Priorities

Engaged & Empowered Parents

Quality Affordable Child Care


Excellent Early Grades Teaching

Strong Accountability Systems

1. Engaged and Empowered Parents

Parents are children’s first and most influential teachers. Positive, nurturing relationships with parents protect and expand children’s brain development, improving their self-confidence, motivation to learn and ability to control impulses. As babies become toddlers and then progress to pre-school and school age, positive parent communication with child care providers and teachers further accelerates early childhood learning, helping set children on a course to realize their academic potential.

Conversely, poverty and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) – such as domestic violence, neglect, and exposure to substance abuse – create conditions that can diminish young children’s brain development and acquisition of critical foundational skills and knowledge.  In Tennessee, 35% of children live at or near poverty and 25% have experienced two or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). To overcome negative conditions, parents and children need resources such as mental health and health care, coaching and support to optimize parent-child interactions, and high quality early learning opportunities that provide strong partnerships with teachers and caregivers in those settings.

The good news is, there are proven program models for preventing and/or mitigating the negative impact of disadvantaged conditions, and promoting positive partnerships between parents and teachers that help children achieve their potential.

Our priorities for parent engagement and empowerment:

  • Expand evidenced-based home visiting programs to provide early parenting support for families in need;
  • Encourage parent-teacher partnerships in child care and elementary schools to boost children’s early learning and academic success; and
  • Expand birth to third grade school-community partnerships that connect families in need to critical resources and services.

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2. High Quality, Affordable Child Care

Starting at birth, young children are continuously and rapidly learning— wherever they are and from whomever they’re with. Child care, regardless of the building or the caregiver, is early education. The key question is whether it’s helping or hindering early learning and, in turn, future education and workforce success.

For working parents, child care is crucial for them to be productive at work and maintain family economic stability. With more than 300,000 Tennessee children under age 6 having all available parents in the workforce, child care is a must for the viability of Tennessee’s workforce.

Regrettably, Tennessee’s current child care policies and public investment have left the state with a highly inadequate child care system. Our report, “Want to Fix Tennessee’s Economy? Fix the Child Care Crisis,” revealed that fully 98 percent of Tennessee parents of children age 5 or younger say inadequate child care services has hurt their work productivity and/or limited career opportunities. Two-thirds cited access and affordability as major problems, and half said finding quality care was a challenge.

The good news is there are unused and underutilized resources available, and demonstrated public returns on investment as high as $13 for every $1 spent on quality early care and education. The time and price are right for Tennessee to re-imagine its child care system as a cost-effective strategy that will pay dividends for the workforce of today and the workforce of tomorrow.

TQEE recommends a full examination and restructuring of Tennessee’s child care system to provide more high quality, affordable and accessible options for Tennessee’s working families. Considerations include:

  • Establishing high standards for quality teaching and learning, with a focus on learning outcomes;
  • Improving strategies for training/education, recruitment, retention and professional development of high quality teachers;
  • Adjusting state reimbursement rates so they adequately cover the costs of quality; and
  • Ensuring there are enough quality, affordable child care slots in all regions; and
  • Maximizing state and federal child care funding streams so more low-income working families can send their children to high quality child care.

Related Resources & Articles

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3. Excellent Early Grades Teaching

Researchers from Vanderbilt University in groundbreaking research have found that disadvantaged children who attended Tennessee’s Voluntary PreK (VPK) were significantly better prepared for kindergarten than those who did not attend. The researchers further confirmed that the VPK children who went on to effective schools and teachers in K-3rd maintained their academic advantage into 3rd grade, outpacing their non-VPK peers who also experienced effective K-3rd.

However, that study found wide variation in the quality of PreK– 3rd grade classrooms across the state. Especially striking were the findings that in most cases, K-3 classrooms failed to provide instructional quality sufficient to sustain earlier PreK gains.

Together with the fact that the majority of Tennessee’s 3rd graders are not proficient in reading and math, these studies point to an urgent need to transform the quality of instruction along the full PreK–3rd grade early learning continuum.

What does early grades transformation mean? It will involve refocusing instruction on evidenced-based, high-quality teaching practices. That means early grades instruction will: a) become developmentally-appropriate based on the age and stage of the children being taught; b) incorporate knowledge and skill building across multiple content areas including reading, math, science, social studies and the arts; and c) emphasize social and work-related, or “soft skills,” competencies. It also means it’s time to double down on support and professional development for our elementary school teachers and principals – with the goals of placing an excellent teacher in every early grade classroom and holding elementary schools accountable for early grades success.

Our priorities for improving teaching in the early grades:

  • Improve and expand quality PreK to propel disadvantaged students’ growth and achievement;
  • Expand the use of knowledge-rich, developmentally-appropriate and inquiry-based curriculum in the early grades – across content areas;
  • Strengthen early grades teacher preparation and training;
  • Prioritize recruitment and retention of highly effective teachers in the early grades;
  • Provide comprehensive professional development for early grades teachers; and
  • Build elementary school principals’ knowledge of high quality early grades instruction.

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4. Strong Accountability and Continuous Improvement Systems

In early education, strong accountability and continuous improvement systems collect, coordinate, and govern the use of data to inform improvements to early childhood programs and services, and to provide visibility into their effectiveness.

Unfortunately, Tennessee has limited statewide data on the quality of children’s early learning experiences and outcomes from birth to third grade, leaving Tennessee with an education blind spot.

While there have been some recent improvements, for example with the implementation of a portfolio approach to assessing student progress in PreK, kindergarten and 1st grade, parents, policy makers, school district leaders and other stakeholders don’t have adequate information to direct resources at appropriate solutions or to effectively hold early education systems – from child care to elementary schools – accountable for good outcomes.

To ensure Tennessee is getting value from its early education investments and is directing resources to effective solutions, TQEE recommends three priorities for action:

  • Establish a birth to age 5 coordinated early learning data system to maximize the reach and effectiveness of early education programs and services;
  • Develop a streamlined system for monitoring, measuring and improving instructional effectiveness and learning outcomes, Pre-K through 3rd grade; and
  • Ensure early grades teachers have extensive training and support to know how to use early grades data, such as data provided by the new student growth portfolio model, to improve instruction.

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Improving Early Education

TQEE is a coalition of business, law enforcement, faith, education, civic organizations and individuals in communities across Tennessee who are committed to advancing high-quality early care and education policies and practices.
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