Almost a hundred people crammed into the Toyota Auditorium following U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s lecture at the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy on Wednesday. They stayed for a panel on kindergarten through graduate school education which featured business and community leaders as well as philanthropists and entrepreneurs.

The overarching theme of the panel was how good education can improve the quality of life for citizens.

“We spend a lot of time analyzing data, and one of the (things) … we look at (is) income going up one axis and educational attainment going across the other,” Richard Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said. “There’s such a pattern … a direct correlation between personal income … and the education attainment level … .”

Randy Boyd, the governor’s advisor on higher education, agreed with Rhoda.

“If you get a community college education, your income in your lifetime will be 400 percent greater than if you don’t,” Boyd said.

Nissa Dahlin-Brown, associate director of the Baker Center, echoed the panel members in her own evaluation of education’s effect on earnings.

“Education is just the foundation of everything,” Dahlin-Brown said. “It’s pretty dismal if you don’t have a year or two (of higher education) out of high school. Your earnings are very low.”

Pam Trainor, a member of the Knox County School Board, pointed out that a successful education requires engaged families. She stressed the importance of parent organizations.

“The PTA world … (is) an advocacy group … that's a huge voice for children,” Trainor said. “We have to find the individual connect in each school … that will get that parental support … Kids love seeing their families in the building, that’s huge (for them).”

Another challenge presented to educators is helping children that are falling behind. Jennifer Evans, vice president of public policy in the workforce development division at the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, said she hopes that technology can assist struggling students.

“I think with technology you can kind of personalize (education) and go at your own pace,” Evans said. “The kids that have already mastered it can advance … Technology (is a) tool, not as an end … (but a) means for personalized learning can help a lot of these kids.”

Anthony Hancock, a special education teacher at Bearden Middle School, agreed with Evans and said developing high quality education for preschool programs is essential.

“Literacy is very important … Early childhood development in terms of reading is fundamental (and) … we need to increase … vocabulary at a very early age,” Hancock, also a former wide receiver at UT and the Kansas City Chiefs, said. “High quality in those areas … (are) … the areas we … have to increase.”

Bob Rider, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences, stressed the importance of education from a young age, and the impact that falling behind can have on a child’s future.

“One of the real sad facts I’ve come across in my experience as an educator is that prison officials look to see what the third grade failure rate is to determine how many prison beds they’re going to need ten years down the line,” Rider said. “If that's not sad, I don’t know what is.”