Tucked into the northwestern corner of Memphis, Tenn., past the derelict tractor-parts plant, across the railroad tracks overgrown with thorny bushes, and through an abandoned neighborhood, is Westside Achievement Middle School.
The 400-student school and others in the neighborhood known as Frayser have been some of the state’s poorest-performing schools for decades.
Like other urban communities devastated by the decline of manufacturing and later by the recession, Frayser doesn’t have much to offer. Most of the single-family homes that surround Westside are vacant, and references to neighborhood gangs scrawled in black graffiti cover a cluster of houses just one block from the middle school. When the University of Memphis recently identified five parts of the city with exceedingly high crime rates, three were in Frayser.
This shrinking outcrop of Memphis is home to some 45,000 people. Most are African-American, and all live at or below the poverty line. Fewer than half the adults have a high school diploma. But it is here that one of the most radical education experiments in the country is taking place, thanks to a $500 million federal Race to the Top grant.
Westside, along with 21 other Memphis schools, is part of the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, whose mission is to transform Tennessee’s chronically failing schools into its best schools. The plan is similar to state-run districts in other parts of the country that try to improve schools by turning them into networks of charters.
But Tennessee’s strategy goes further than most: The ASD also includes schools that are run directly by the state, and its goal is to catapult them all from the bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent on state tests in just five years.
The effort is just one of several that have taken hold across the Volunteer State during the past three years as part of an intensive state and federal effort to transform the public education system. In March, the Obama administration began raising the victory flag, calling Race to the Top a success and pointing to Tennessee—one of the 11 states and the District of Columbia that split the $4 billion competitive-grant fund—as a bright, shiny example of how incentive-based contests can right a distressed education system.
“This is simply remarkable progress we’re witnessing in the state of Tennessee,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in March, just a month after President Barack Obama name-checked Race to the Top in his State of the Union address. The secretary said improvements in Tennessee are proof that the program works.
“I challenged Tennessee to become the fastest-improving state in the nation,” Mr. Duncan continued. “I knew that was an ambitious goal, but … today they are literally the fastest-improving state, and it’s a model for the nation.”
To be sure, Tennessee made the biggest academic gains according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the federal competition allowed it to embark on some of the most ambitious education initiatives in the country.
But the impact of Race to the Top on the state is more complicated than the U.S. Department of Education suggests.
Tennessee paid organizations millions of dollars to help improve its education system, but many of the new policies implemented have yet to yield positive results. The state got serious about turning around its worst schools, but replacing entire teacher corps disrupted communities. Dozens of charter schools opened, but some are no better than the ones they replaced. Teachers agreed to help craft new evaluation and compensation models, but some feel they were steamrolled by consultants hired to draft the new models themselves.
And the competition has many critics who blast the Education Department for not using the stimulus funding to bolster grants for low-income students and those with disabilities.
“The best use of limited federal dollars during the nation’s worst recession is advancing policies that make general resources available to all states and all students,” said Noelle Ellerson, the associate executive director of policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “No conditions, no competitions.”
Although Tennessee’s ACT college-entrance scores have barely budged, it’s made little improvement in closing achievement gaps, and it still languishes in the bottom half of states for educational attainment, many prominent education policy experts deem the state to be on the right path.
“I think, on net, they’re better off because of Race to the Top,” said Anne Hyslop, an education policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. “Have there been missteps? Absolutely. I’m not sure every single part of it will be a success, at least not in the original vision. But maybe that’s still considered a success: You didn’t meet this big, hairy, audacious goal, but you made some really important progress.”
Ripe for Change
When Secretary Duncan first outlined the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition, which Congress approved as part of the federal economic-stimulus package in 2009, he said $4 billion of the money would go only to courageous states with the most ambitious and innovative plans to improve schools. (The rest went to state-led consortia developing tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards.)
At the time, Tennessee was not a hotbed of education change similar to Colorado, Florida, or Massachusetts. The state had abysmally low academic standards, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had given it an “F” for the truthfulness of its students’ proficiency rates. No one considered it a front-runner for the federal funding.
But then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, wanted a slice of the pie. He pushed hard for the legislature to pass an extensive education overhaul bill, strategically called “First to the Top,” that paved the way for many of the subsequent policy changes and made Tennessee more competitive for one of the new grants.
“The conditions are ripe for wholesale education reform,” Mr. Bredesen and his education policy team wrote in the introduction to the state’s Race to the Top application. “Lawmakers enacted the most sweeping set of education reform measures in a generation ... in a consensus-driven, collaborative fashion, which we believe greatly enhances the long-range sustainability of reforms in Tennessee.”
The federal Education Department agreed, and Tennessee and Delaware became the first to nab a chunk of the coveted funds in March of 2010.
Tennessee promised that, over the next four years, it would turn around its poorest-performing schools, launch a full-scale common-core training effort, include student-achievement scores in teacher evaluations, and increase the use of technology for tracking student success, among other changes.
Though Tennessee has yet to complete any of the big policy lifts it set out to tackle, the state has generally managed to stick to its timeline and avert any serious setbacks.
Tennessee did a good job of clearing the way for its education overhaul before actually winning its grant. For example, its First to the Top law meant that every district was on the same page, and that superintendents, principals, and teachers knew what would be expected of them. Virtually every change the state took on with Race to the Top dollars was written into the state law, so Tennessee didn’t have to spend time trying to pass additional legislation the way some states did.
In addition, the state’s lack of a strong teachers’ union allowed it to sidestep potentially protracted contract negotiations, which set back many Race to the Top-winning states and, in Hawaii’s case, landed state officials in hot water with the Education Department.
Tennessee benefited the most, however, from consistent leadership. The state elected Republican Gov. Bill Haslam eight months after it won the grant, and Mr. Haslam supported his predecessor’s education agenda.
One of Mr. Haslam’s first decisions as governor was to appoint Kevin Huffman, an ardent supporter of the market-driven education overhauls Tennessee was about to pursue and a former executive director of Teach For America, as education commissioner.
Those less enthusiastic about the changes to Tennessee’s education system would characterize the duo as a thorn in their side. But their drive to fulfill the Race to the Top promises gave the state the advantage of staying the course. Maryland, for example, had a hard time getting its projects off the ground because of state chief turnover.
Federal education officials gave Tennessee particular praise for reimagining the entire structure of its education system, including turning its field offices that played a compliance-monitoring role into what the state termed “core offices,” which focused on coaching and support for districts. The state education department’s transition to a more mentoring-style approach trickled down to the schools themselves, which launched new teacher-leader roles and upped the emphasis on continual feedback and counseling.
In terms of big-bucket issues, Tennessee launched the most comprehensive common-core standards training effort in the country, both in the number of teachers trained and the amount of money spent. With $44 million from its Race to the Top grant, it trained more than 70,000 teachers, including 30,000 in one summer alone.
The training sessions, which continue through this summer, are led by some 700 teacher coaches—Tennessee teachers who were selected by the state based on their records of classroom success and given two weeks of intensive training that emphasized how the standards can be translated into classroom practice.
“We serve as a resource for the districts, and if a county is struggling with math, we might be asked to go teach there for a bit,” said Peter Tang, a teacher coach based in Memphis. He met with Secretary Duncan last year amid the growing antipathy toward the standards and stressed the importance of having teachers develop a common-core mindset.
“Common core isn’t just a bunch of standards,” said Mr. Tang. “It’s a mind-set you have to have in your teaching.”
The Less Good
The most ambitious, and most controversial, part of Tennessee’s Race to the Top grant was the creation of the ASD. It was modeled after Louisiana’s Recovery School District and is an example of the increasingly popular concept of a “portfolio district,” a group of schools, many of them run by charter operators, that exercises more autonomy over staff and funding.
Mr. Huffman tapped Chris Barbic, a fellow Teach For America alumnus and founder of YES Prep charter schools in Houston, to head the effort. The state-run district absorbs a certain number of schools each year and hands them over to charter organizations or runs them at the state level, independent of the regular public school system. The schools have more flexibility over how to spend money, whom to hire, and how to structure the school day, and they operate with a sense of urgency that’s palpable.
The endeavor, however, has been criticized—as are most school turn-around efforts—for its lack of community outreach.
“I think there’s been some challenges of working with the communities and understanding that when you’re going into these communities and talking about fundamentally changing how the school operates and who will be working in those schools, it sends shock waves through the community,” said Ms. Hyslop of the New America Foundation.
To be sure, Mr. Barbic and his staff spent months working in neighborhoods and gathering parent feedback, and there are very few people whose track records of turning around troubled schools are better than his, based on his work at YES Prep.
Commissioner Huffman disputed the idea that the ASD team didn’t do enough to engage the communities surrounding the schools the state-run district absorbed. He acknowledged, though, that the schools still have a long road ahead of them.
Early results from state tests show that from the 2011-12 to the 2012-13 school year, math proficiency increased by 3.3 percent, but that English/language arts proficiency decreased by 4.5 percent.
Critics also blame the ASD for the influx of charter schools in Memphis, a city that accounts for 69 of the state’s 84 worst-performing schools. The charter schools, opponents say, take funding away from the city’s regular public schools, which are already struggling with shrinking enrollment as a result of a contraction in the population.
Tennessee has also struggled a bit to implement its new teacher-evaluation plan, mainly because of its swift rollout, though not nearly as much as some other states.
The new evaluation system ranks teachers on a 1-to-5 scale. Fifty percent of the evaluation is based on student-achievement scores, including 35 percent on “value added” student-achievement data; the other 50 percent is based on qualitative measures, such as principals’ observations of teachers or student-perception surveys.
While Tennessee had the advantage of already having a value-added student-achievement system that it had been using for nearly 20 years, teacher advocates began protesting when the state implemented the system before it had developed a value-added plan for teachers in nontested subjects, such as music. As a result, those teachers received value-added scores based not on their students’ performance, but on schoolwide math and reading data.
Since 2010, Tennessee has used its more than $500 million in Race to the Top money to overhaul its education system, seeking to turn around its poorest-performing schools, launching a massive common-standards training effort, revamping teacher and principal evaluations, and updating technology in schools.
SOURCE: Tennessee Department of Education
Critics also pointed to what they perceived to be an excessive amount of observation that took away from principals’ time for other duties.
The state also ran into trouble rolling out its technology-related plans, mainly because of contractual issues. And many of its STEM-focused initiatives yielded modest results, at best.
The most recent challenge, though, involves unhappiness with Mr. Huffman’s perceived management style.
Last year, nearly half the state’s superintendents signed a petition condemning Mr. Huffman’s leadership of the state education department and claiming he had “no interest in a dialogue.”
More recently, 15 Republican state lawmakers sent a letter to Gov. Haslam demanding Mr. Huffman’s resignation. The June 19 letter cited complaints from school administrators, teachers, and students about his top-down approach.
“After implementation is the inevitable pushback,” said Gov. Haslam at the Education Writers Association conference in Nashville in May. Any state that takes on such immense education overhauls, he said, needs to be prepared for “the rebound that comes with the changes.”
As Tennessee’s Race to the Top grant runs dry—almost every penny is spent at this point—state education officials are tasked with a new job: preventing any rollback of the overhauls and finding ways to continue supporting programs that have had a positive impact.
Gov. Haslam and Mr. Huffman began that process in April, when the legislature voted to delay for one year the test that Tennessee had planned to administer in the 2014-15 school year to align with the common-core standards. Under the recently inked law, schools will not administer the tests until 2015-16, and the state will reopen the competitive-bidding process for the assessment altogether, meaning tests designed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, consortium may never be used.
“It’s important to have consistency,” Ms. Hyslop said. “If that starts to crack a little bit, it could make it difficult to sustain some of these things over the long term.”
The Funding Cliff
The sunset of Race to the Top dollars also has some districts scrambling to backfill funding that for the past three years supported a variety of initiatives. Some districts have successfully replaced the competitive funding, thanks to new partnerships with local colleges and universities or grants from philanthropic organizations; others have begun shedding their least effective programs.
Mr. Huffman said it’s too early to call Race to the Top a complete success in Tennessee, despite the federal Education Department’s insistence and NAEP scores that showed 4th graders moving from 46th in the nation in math to 37th, and from 41st in reading to 31st.
“NAEP scores going up significantly basically means we went from the 40s in state rankings to 30s in state ranking,” he said. “I don’t think any of us are jumping up and down saying, ‘Hey, we’re just a little below average now!’ ”
Ms. Ellerson, of the national superintendents’ group, doubts the Education Department and policy analysts will ever be able to isolate the true impact of Race to the Top dollars from that of other federal aid, such as Title I for low-income children or funding for students with disabilities.
“The reality is Race to the Top was the only source of additional dollars,” Ms. Ellerson said. “In the absence of getting more Title I money, superintendents can roll up their sleeves and do the work, pinching their noses and taking the competitive dollars.”
Mr. Huffman noted, however, that flat ACT scores could be a pipeline issue—those who graduated in the past three years spent little time with the more rigorous common-core standards. And while achievement gaps haven’t changed much for English-language learners and students with disabilities, the state has made marked improvements in raising the achievement of African-American students.
“As much as there’s been pain in the change, there’s no doubt if you walk into Tennessee classrooms today, the quality of learning is higher than it was four years ago,” Mr. Huffman said.
Research and reporting for this article was done in large part during Ms. Camera’s time as a 2013-14 Spencer Fellow in Education Reporting at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism.
A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Tennessee on Dogged Path to Race to Top Finish