Home Editorials Urgent need for education policy discussions

Urgent need for education policy discussions

by PRIDE Newsdesk
J.C. Bowman

by J.C. Bowman

In Tennessee education, a lot is happening that people need to pay attention to. Only a few candidates are sparking meaningful discussions, and everyone seems fixated on whether Gov. Lee can gather enough support by recruiting people to pass universal vouchers in the next legislative session.

Many policy makers are already aware that Arizona discovered its program has cost hundreds of millions more than expected, favored wealthier students, went to students already enrolled in private schools, and directed funds to unregulated private schools without the same educational standards or accountability measures imposed on public schools.

A flawed, universal voucher plan will disproportionately affect all students. Failing in private schools leads to the same poor outcomes as failing in public schools. The governor’s plan, as presented this year, was deeply flawed. When implemented effectively, school choice options, including existing options, offer students a variety of choices while also ensuring accountability to both parents and taxpayers. Gov. Lee included no responsibility in his universal school voucher plan.

The latest Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranks Tennessee 36th in overall child well-being. It underlines the pressing need to address educational challenges, such as learning loss and chronic absenteeism stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Tennessee ranks 32nd in education with improvements in state assessments in 2023, but 23% of students frequently miss school. This underscores the immediate and urgent need for action to improve education policies in Tennessee.

Significant disparities exist in educational outcomes, with 83% of eligible 4th graders scoring below proficient in reading using the 2022 data. However, Tennessee, ranking 34th in economic well-being, 38th in health, and 39th in family and community factors, presents significant opportunities for improvement. Education was the highest-ranked area in the Casey Foundation report.

Tennessee has the opportunity to enhance student achievement, attendance, and mental health, with 23% of federal pandemic education funds still available. Educators, parents, and community members can make a difference by investing in family engagement, mental health, tutoring, and early childhood education. Collaboration is essential to address these challenges and create a better student future. Together, we can build these bridges in Tennessee.

The flaws of traditional assessment models are widely acknowledged. All kids learn, but not all kids learn at the same or at the same rate. State testing often yields delayed results with limited impact on classroom learning. Tennessee should re-evaluate its focus on standardized tests in education and shift from exam-centric teaching to fostering personal growth and development. The state should prioritize the implementation of more hands-on learning. This shift is crucial.

Inadequate interim assessments fail to align with timely classroom instruction, thereby extending teaching that does not benefit the child. Like leading countries, our state and nation must consider broader systemic changes and the complexities of transitioning away from an exam-centric education system. Where is the discussion on connecting assessment to the work teachers and students do daily in Tennessee?

When it comes to reading, choosing between textbooks and online materials could significantly impact learning outcomes. Research has explored whether reading on paper or screens is more conducive to learning. Some studies indicate that reading on paper might enhance retention due to reduced distractions and differences in brain engagement. However, when it comes to basic comprehension, the two mediums show no significant disparities.

While not definitive, findings indicate that the brain may process information differently when reading on paper than on screens. Should we limit screen time for students or study the issue further? Tennessee spends millions of dollars annually on textbooks, so this seems like an issue worth exploring.

Several academic studies have highlighted significant gaps in essential reading skills. These studies have identified phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary/morphology, oral reading fluency, and reading comprehension. Addressing these gaps is crucial to teaching reading effectively, and the curriculum must also be considered.

The Tennessee Disability Coalition report, ‘Special Education Behavior Supports, Policies, and Practices in Tennessee Schools,’ tackles the challenges faced by students with disabilities. The report notes a shortage of special education teachers in 85% of districts, high teacher turnover (21% leave each year), and a lack of resources. This results in larger class sizes, fewer course offerings, and lower-quality support for these students. The report suggests that classroom discipline problems stem from misguided Tennessee policies rather than student behavior.

There is room for a robust discussion of the issues the Disability Coalition raises. A school cannot legally suspend a special needs student beyond 10 days if the child’s behavior is a manifestation of their disability. The link between the child’s conduct violation and his or her disability is the determining factor. During the suspension, the school must still provide ongoing education under the student’s IEP.

In addition, the state has adopted a new K-12 education funding formula to allocate more resources to students with higher needs, including those with disabilities. However, the change did not mandate that districts allocate the additional funds specifically for special education services. Despite the state’s pledge to add an extra $1 billion annually to the K-12 funding pool, Tennessee still ranks in the bottom 10 states in the nation for education funding per student. The Census Bureau ranks Tennessee lower. We must consistently review the funding issue, focusing on allocating resources to enhance education for all. This should be a top priority.

We need leaders to address education policy issues before elections. Working together is crucial to ensure all children have the necessary resources to thrive. Your voice is essential in this process as a citizen of Tennessee. Let’s have those critical discussions on education policy issues now.

(J.C. Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville.) 

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