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Education Funding

Tennessee Targets Teaching With Race to Top Winnings

State Officials See Unique Chance for Big Change in Expectations for Schools
By Dakarai I. Aarons — April 02, 2010 4 min read
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Armed with $500 million in federal Race to the Top Fund money, Tennessee’s education officials are looking to boost the quality of their teaching and principal ranks while pushing to turn around low-performing schools faster than ever.

Timothy K. Webb, the state education commissioner, said he’s excited by the accolades, as well as the pressure, that come from being in the spotlight as the state tries to remake its education system with the help of a large infusion of federal aid.

This point in time represents “the biggest moment of public education in Tennessee,” he said in an interview after the two first-round winners in the competition were announced last week. “We have the opportunity to have the resources to make the change happen, and the opportunity to change the expectations,” Mr. Webb said. “We believe that is key to our success.”

Tennessee, which enrolls about 846,000 public school students, ranked No. 2 behind Delaware among 41 applicants on the Race to the Top competition’s 500-point grading scale, with 444.2 points.

Race to the Top: Round 1

Overview:
$3.4 Billion Is Left in Race to Top Aid
The Winners:
Race to Top Win Poses $100 Million Test for Delaware
Tennessee Targets Teaching With Race to Top Winnings

The Volunteer State has been working to position itself as an education leader for several years under Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat who has pushed for changes that revamped the state’s standardized tests and academic standards as part of its participation in the American Diploma Project.

The state overhauled its education funding formula in 2007 to funnel more aid to students deemed at risk academically, such as English-language learners, and put in place tougher high school graduation requirements in 2008.

To make the state more competitive for Race to the Top funding, the legislature last summer also increased the limit on the number of charter schools that could open in the state and broadened the pool of students eligible to attend such schools.

“We said at the outset it’s all or nothing,” Gov. Bredesen said in a conference call with reporters last week. “We are past the point of demonstration projects or pilot projects.”

Investing in Teaching

Many of Tennessee’s policy changes were embedded in the state’s First to the Top legislation passed this winter to help bolster the state’s chances of winning the grant. The provisions included a new evaluation system for teachers.

Fifty percent of evaluations will be based on student-achievement growth, which Mr. Webb, the education commissioner, calls “a cornerstone” of the state’s plans.

“We believe that if you take all of the technology out of the classroom, ... but you leave the highly effective teacher interacting with students, the students will grow,” he said. “All those other things are great to have, but we know without a shadow of a doubt that we have to invest in great teachers.”

Under the new law, all teachers will be evaluated annually. The state plans to launch a pilot evaluation program next school year, before full implementation in 2011-12.

Jesse Register, the superintendent of the 76,000-student Metropolitan Nashville public school district, said he is most excited by the opportunity to improve the quality of the state’s educators.

Mr. Register is among those on a 15-member task force appointed by Gov. Bredesen and the state legislature to craft the new evaluation system.

“The change in teacher evaluation is transformational. It’s not just tweaking the system,” Mr. Register said. “When we go to an annual evaluation for every teacher, and when we tie student performance to teacher performance and evaluation, that’s a game changer.”

Educators statewide will take part in professional development on “how to use the wealth of data we have had here for years and years and have not effectively utilized,” Mr. Webb said.

Raising teacher quality and effectiveness is key, Mr. Register said. “We have about 6,000 classroom teachers,” the Nashville school leader said. “I want every one of them to be good. I don’t want there to be a gap.”

Moving Forward

Mr. Register and Mr. Webb gave special credit to Gov. Bredesen, who secured the signatures of every candidate running this year to succeed him as governor pledging they would support the education reform efforts.

An “achievement school district” office, under the direct supervision of the commissioner, has been established to work on improving the fortunes of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

Using previous state accountability laws, Tennessee has moved aggressively in recent years to deal with persistently failing schools and districts, including in Nashville. (“Nashville Governance Up in Air as Mayor Seeks Role in Schools,” Nov. 19, 2008.)

But Mr. Webb said the new assessments, which will result in fewer schools making adequate yearly progress for accountability purposes, create pressure to move more quickly to improve low-performing schools.

Staff Writer Lesli A. Maxwell contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 2010 edition of Education Week as Tennessee to Zero In on Educator Quality With Stimulus Aid

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