Kemp Conrad

Kemp Conrad, a principal at Cushman & Wakefield/Commercial Advisors, is chairman of the Memphis City Council.

Kenneth S. Robinson

Rev. Kenneth S. Robinson, M.D., is president/CEO of United Way of the Mid-South and former Tennessee Commissioner of Health.

Legislators in Early Education Caucus address 'crisis' in student performance

By Published: March 26, 2019 2:12 PM CT

Despite statewide student performance gains in recent years, we have a chronic problem that presents a challenge for Memphis and every community in the state.  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 third grade.

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

On that front, a positive sign has emerged from the Tennessee General Assembly. In February, Senate Education Committee chairman Dolores Gresham and House Education Committee chairman Mark White announced formation of the General Assembly Early Education Caucus.

Motivated by the fact that the majority of Tennessee’s third-grade students can’t read or do math on grade level, a bipartisan group of legislators has committed to exploring policy improvements for students prior to grade three.

In announcing the new caucus, 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 cited the crisis that convenes their work, saying “the present under-performance 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 individuals involved in business, health and government, 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 five 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.

The Daily Memphian welcomes a diverse range of views and invites readers to submit guest columns by contacting Peggy Burch, community engagement editor, at


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