TN education chief: state has chronic absenteeism problem

Published: Sep. 1, 2016 at 8:34 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 1, 2016 at 10:10 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Dr. Candice McQueen, Tennessee's Education Commissioner, said getting children to school remains a major challenge.

"We have a chronic absenteeism problem in Tennessee," McQueen told a Memphis Rotary Club luncheon. "Our statewide data shows we have a massive number of kids who are missing around 18 days of school or more at Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten and 1st grade, and then we have another spike at 11th and 12th grade," McQueen said.

The education leader said the reason children miss school in the early years usually revolves around some family support that's needed.

"Guess what's happening in 11th and 12th grade?" McQueen asked Rotarians and then answered her own query. "Kids have the option not to come. Kids who are not engaged tend not to come. They can drive or they can just make the decision, 'I'm not going to go. I'm not going to college, so I'm not going to finish high school.' So there's different reasons why we see these spikes."

McQueen noted that of the one million students attending Tennessee public schools, 65 percent are considered economically disadvantaged. A former Dean of Education at Lipscomb University, McQueen stressed the importance of helping all Tennessee students.

"A focus on all students is important not only to our economic development as a state, but it's important to have students in our communities who grow into parents, grow into workers, grow into family members who are ultimately able to give back. That's what we all want."

One chilling statistic McQueen spotlighted is 3rd grade reading proficiency.

"Right now, 43 percent of our kids are reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade--less than half. Remains about the same at 8th grade (meaning about 43 percent of Tennessee 8th graders read on 8th grade level). If we're ever going to reach our goals in Tennessee, we have to we have to have more students reading on grade level earlier and earlier," McQueen said.

The education commissioner noted that the state has a number of projects underway to improve reading proficiency, including an intensive study that examines children who have failed to reach reading benchmarks and what educators could have done differently to improve reading

McQueen has made "Early Foundations in Literacy" a top priority and has focused on coaching early age teachers (K-3) in best practices on teaching reading, inviting the most effective educators to accept teaching assignments in the earliest grades. McQueen said the state also is focused on implementing effective support measures for teachers in reading proficiency.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has made education a top priority of his administration with Tennessee Promise, two free years of community college or technical school for Tennessee High School graduates starting in 2015. It's all part of Haslam's so-called "Drive to 55," with the goal of seeing 55 percent of Tennessee adults to obtain a college degree or certificate by the year 2025. McQueen warned the state will be unable to meet its education goals unless it improves reading proficiency much earlier than 3rd grade.

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