For all his passion about state sovereignty, for all his fire about Second Amendment rights, some of the most intense energy in Zach Wamp’s campaign rhetoric is about early childhood reading.
Every candidate in the race to be Tennessee’s next governor talks at length about education. Almost unanimously, the discussion on that topic among Democrats and Republicans has been the connection between quality education and attracting jobs.
But it’s not just education and jobs with Wamp, a Republican congressman from Chattanooga. For better or worse on how well it breaks through to voters, Wamp has zeroed in on one particular element of education, and it is about the reading proficiency of a third grader.
Every candidate for governor brings something distinctly their own to the table. For Democrat Kim McMillan, it is her experience in state government. For Democrat Mike McWherter, it is a business background. For Republican Bill Gibbons, it is fighting crime as a prosecutor. For Republican Bill Haslam, it’s the combination of business and government experience. For Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, it is an understanding of small-business issues, where job growth is crucial.
Wamp is the only candidate who has homed in aggressively on third-grade reading. Not just education but third-grade reading. Not just K-12 funding, or test scores, or parental involvement, or higher ed or evaluating teachers. It’s third-grade reading.
On this specific subject, one of these candidates is not like the others.
It has been that way from the start, and Wamp’s message is the same today as in the heat of the summer of 2009, when candidates were making their first rounds at county party picnics, campaign speeches nailed down, word by word, to the point they joked about how they knew each other’s lines.
“Make no mistake,” Wamp says. “The state government is charged with improving public education, and the most important step is early childhood reading. We do not test in Tennessee as a policy until the end of the third grade. If a child does not read well by the end of the third grade, it is too late.
“That child will likely become like one of the 28,000 students who dropped out of school last year. Give me a good third-grade reader, and I’ll give you a good eighth-grade social studies student. Give me a good third-grade reader, and I’ll give you a high school graduate. I’ll give you a productive citizen.”
While most candidates — not only in Tennessee but in every state — concentrate on higher test scores in K-12 or the importance of graduating from high school or college, or obtaining the skills for jobs, Wamp focuses on this one piece of the puzzle. He understands the rest. But you rarely hear him talk about education without addressing third-grade reading.
“The most successful school systems don’t wait until the third grade to measure reading. They benchmark every child in kindergarten to see if the child is reading at a proficient level,” Wamp said.
“If not, they give the child an hour a day of direct instruction and teach them phonics and catch them up. Teachers in high schools are saying, ‘They’re sending us students who can’t even read, yet they advance them on anyway.’ You should not allow a child to advance through the third grade unless the child can read.”
Wamp says if he becomes governor, all 137 school systems in Tennessee will teach children to read proficiently by the third grade.
He does support other programs.
“I will be the strongest governor for home-school families this state has ever seen or ever will see,” he says. “There are all kinds of good ideas. I want distance learning. I want charter schools. I want teacher academies. But none of that will make a difference unless we improve the early childhood reading component.”
At one point in the campaign, Wamp was asked what lit his fire on early childhood reading. What made the light come on for him on this topic?
“Teachers. Educators,” he said. “Educators care a whole lot. We’ve got to give them a better product. We’ve got to advance people who can read well.
“I’ve known for some time that you’re born with 15 percent of your brain developed. After five years, 85 percent of your brain is developed. You should start reading to children when they’re in the womb — and literally as they’re growing up so they understand phonics, understand what words sound like, what words mean.
“When they see a printed word they can connect the two. We’ve got to have better readers earlier. That is far and away the most important step we can take.”