Narrowing the education gap will be one challenge facing whoever becomes Tennessee's next governor.
Students in the state are doing better in math and reading, but black and Hispanic students aren't improving as fast as their white counterparts.
So we asked each of the six major candidates for governor this question:
Testing shows that white students in Tennessee are outperforming black and Hispanic students. What are the first steps you’d take to close the "achievement gap"?
It turns out, most of the candidates cited one idea to help address the problem.
"You have to start in pre-K," says House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, "or even before."
In the early 2000s, Tennessee ranked among the bottom states nationwide in education. These days, it falls somewhere in the middle of the pack, at least in the early grades. And Fitzhugh believes much of the credit goes to the spread of pre-K, formal education programs for 4-year-olds that can teach the basics: numbers and counting, the alphabet, colors and shapes.
"I'm not a professional as to how to do it," Fitzhugh says, "but I know it has an effect when you do it."
Governor Bill Haslam — and Phil Bredesen before him — were believers in pre-K. They both worked to expand the number of schools offering the programs.
Now more than one in five pre-K aged children are enrolled. Education experts say that's one reason more students are proficient in reading and math.
Democrat Karl Dean was also a big fan of pre-K when he was mayor of Nashville. He's made expanding it even more part of his platform.
"To me, addressing the achievement gap is one where you're bringing pre-K, where you're putting the resources into early literacy and having great teachers," he says.
On the Republican side, Randy Boyd and Beth Harwell also say early education is critical to closing the achievement gap between white students and students of color.
Still, there are plenty of skeptics. Some argue young children are better off at home. Research also shows the benefits of an early start often wear off.
Some candidates offer other ideas. Congressman Diane Black suggests studying whether kids are being promoted before they've mastered their grade level. Businessman Bill Lee touts more school options.
"We need to be certain that all students receive the highest-quality of education that we can," he says. "It starts with providing choices for parents."
And increasingly those are parents and students of color. The Census Bureau says the share of Tennesseans who are black or Hispanic is on the rise.
That means bridging the achievement gap will become more important to the state's overall success in education.
QUESTION: Testing shows that white students in Tennessee are outperforming black and Hispanic students. What are the first steps you’d take to close the "achievement gap"?
Karl Dean: I think what we have to do, for all areas of education, is fund it appropriately and continue to make that a high priority. Clearly, there are parts of our state that have had less success in terms of academic performance, and we need to put resources there where we can help with that.
To me, addressing the achievement gap is one where you're bringing pre-K, where you're putting the resources into early literacy and having great teachers. So all of those things that would benefit students is what I would propose doing, and putting the added resources in areas where it is clearly shown that it's needed.
Craig Fitzhugh: Eliminate poverty. I think much of it has to do with poverty, and it has to do with early childhood education.
So I think what I would do first — and what I've said that I'm coming to believe is the most important — is the ability for a child to read at grade level by the third grade. We do pretty good at that, but other states do better. A lot of states do worse. And it's about 50 percent overall nationally. So we need to increase that.
And you can't start at second grade to do it. You have to start in pre-K — or even before, reading to children and things like that. I'm not a professional as to how to do it, but I know it has an effect when you do it, because if a child can learn to read by that time, then they can read to learn after that. And at one point in time, with the teaching we have, that light bulb will come on and possibly — probably — that child will grow on to become a productive citizen with much less physical, mental and emotional problems than a child that didn't have that background to read.
Randy Boyd: Well, there's a lot of things. One of the things we need to look at is more quality, effective pre-K in some of our more needy communities, but in addition, something I pioneered in Knoxville was a concept called a community school, which provides holistic, wraparound services using nonprofits at the local school to help young people in the inner cities.
Beth Harwell: We have narrowed the gap. We haven't closed it. But we are narrowing it. So we're making a concerted effort there. We're putting additional resources into some of our low-income schools, especially in the city areas of Memphis and Nashville. And we just have to just keep working. It's not unique to Tennessee. It exists across every state in the nation. But we just have to continue to put additional efforts in.
You know, keep in mind that all children learn differently, especially those that come from different backgrounds in their homes and the amount of attention they've received in their homes. And that's why we have early education programs for some of our lower-income children to try to help bridge that gap.
Bill Lee: We need to be certain that all students receive the highest quality of education that we can. It starts with providing choices for parents, for students all across the state. When we provide choices, then not only is an individual kid's life improved, but the system itself is improved. So a choice is a big opportunity for improvement for all students.
My kids were homeschooled and went to public school and went to private school. And the young man that I mentor is in a public charter school. So I don't think it's so important what kind of school it is, but the quality of education that our children receive. And that's what I'm committed to, quality education in all choices.
Diane Black: I think every child in the state deserves attention, to be sure they get best education that they can, and we see pockets of excellence, where we do see children doing very well. We see areas where they are not achieving.
And what has really concerned me is that I'm hearing more and more that there's more pressure on our teachers to move these children along when they have not attained the education that they need at that particular level, and that concerns me.
I think we do need to look at this in a different eye. We need to give it a second look, make sure that every student in this state, whether they're in a rural, suburban or urban area, regardless of their color or even their background, that they are able to achieve and eventually be successful with a job or a skill.