Tennessee’s Race to the Top

And the winner is…..

….but wait a minute. My state’s proposal for Race to the Top money was just as innovative, ambitious and just as rigorous as Tennessee’s application. So why does Tennessee walk away with $500 million while my state and school district get skunked?

“We put in for half a billion dollars with no expectations whatsoever of getting all that money,” said Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen, rubbing it in. “We got it all.”

A critical factor in Tennessee’s success, we’re told, is that the state had buy-in from virtually all its school districts and teacher unions. Buy-in is not an easy thing to pull off when your reform program has to include a plan for evaluating teachers based on their students’ performance, a highly controversial and emotional issue for educators. Tennessee has committed to basing 50% of teacher/principal evaluations on student achievement data.

But other states among the 16 finalists had strong buy-in as well. So how did Tennessee set itself apart? I decided to take a second look at Tennessee’s Race to the Top application. Or more specifically, I decided to take a look at the reviewers’ comments on the state’s application.

Not surprisingly, I soon saw that Tennessee had an unfair advantage.  In one word: Data.

Reviewers comments were peppered with references to the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System (TVAAS), a system that has been collecting data on student growth since the early 1990s.

Some sample comments:

“The State has a high quality plan to create a teacher and principal evaluation system centered on student achievement. The plan will build on the strength of having the most extensive longitudinal student achievement data system in the nation (TVAAS).”

“Tennessee has been a national leader in the use of value-added assessment to measure teacher effectiveness. The State’s TVAAS system was put into place in the early 1990s. Not only has Tennessee invested substantial resources in its IT systems to enable the student-teacher linkages and calculate growth, teachers have a long history using these measures. …Teacher familiarity with value-added most likely will help the State secure educator buy-in as it moves forward in expanding the uses of these statistical models to inform human capital decisions.”

“For nearly two decades, Tennessee has calculated growth measures for student growth through its TVAAS system. The State has linked student growth to teacher effectiveness and used it to inform decisions related to teacher employment. Tennessee can immediately begin to address the educator effectiveness measures called for under Race to the Top.”

In its Race to the Top presentation to federal officials, the state said that it had “built the car (data system) before the road.” Clearly, the state is about to build the highway.

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