Breaking Down ‘Race to the Top’

Lawmakers will spend the next few days changing Tennessee’s education laws to make the state eligible for an infusion of federal education funding.

But the hottest issue up for debate at the statehouse this week — how strongly to tie student test scores to educators’ tenure and yearly evaluations — accounts for only 12 percent of the overall “Race to the Top” federal grant application.

“That’s just one little technical piece to be taken care of,” said Rachel Woods, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education.

Race to Top pie

The $4.35 billion grant competition, which is a part of the federal stimulus package, will award the top 10 to 20 states with leading education reforms that boost student achievement and graduation rates, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Tennessee is slated to receive more than $400 million if it wins the grant money.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who called this a “once in a lifetime chance” to propel student achievement, will be most interested in how Tennessee fits into the grant’s four-pronged approach for reform.

He and the U.S. Department of Education will measure how well the state can:

  • Adopt measures to better prepare students for college, work and compete in the global economy
  • Build databanks that measure students’ success; use that information to fuel instruction
  • Attract, develop, reward and keep effective teachers and principals, particularly in tough-to-teach classrooms
  • Turn around low-achieving schools.

The 102-page grant application — which scores much like a high school final exam — looks for a state to pitch several education reforms. Sections range from finding ways to improve the transition between preschool and kindergarten, how to use student data to drive instruction, and methods to better prepare students for jobs in complicated subjects like math and technology.

The application, which is estimated to take 681 hours to complete, is cut into several pieces. The slice with the heaviest weight calls for states to find, keep and develop quality teachers.

That section, worth 28 percent of the total evaluation, asks for Tennessee to prove how it will support several initiatives, such as alternative teaching certification programs and attracting quality teachers to struggling schools.

The section also calls for making professional-development programs for teachers and principals more rigorous. It also and includes linking student-performance data to salary, tenure and firing decisions — which accounts for 58 out of 138 possible scoring points.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit research and advocacy group, suggests a state’s performance in this teachers section will “make or break” their application, while winning proposals break new ground in this area.

“It will require break-the-mold initiatives and iron political will on the part of states to undertake a human capital reform agenda — and, accordingly, the Department has assigned the big points and promised the big money for this tough work,” read NCTQ’s “Race to the Top Scorecard” (pdf).

Lawmakers expect to reverse a current ban on using annual standardized tests to help determine whether teachers receive tenure.

In 1992, schools began collecting student performance data through standardized tests. But the Tennessee Education Association convinced lawmakers to make it illegal to use those scores to help evaluate teacher performance for tenure.

Gov. Phil Bredesen called the special session specifically to pass legislation to help the state compete for “Race to the Top” grant money and other education issues.

He said last month the scores would have to weigh in at 50 percent or more to engage the issue. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican, agreed last week with 50 percent mark and expects to push the measure through.

The main opponent, the Tennessee Education Association, said it is willing to support test scores accounting for 35 percent of teachers’ and principals’ evaluations.

For “Race to the Top” grant money, Tennessee will also have to prove it has the statewide capacity to follow through on promised reforms and show that — since at least 2003 — it’s already made good headway in improving student achievement, according to “Race to the Top” documents. The section, called “State Success Points,” represents a quarter of the grant application.

About 14 percent of the application depends on the state’s commitment to developing standards other states can later adopt on their own.

Another 11 percent is given based on the state’s recent track record for shifting more dollars to education each year and 9 percent is for using student data to drive instruction. An additional 3 percent — considered a tie-breaker — is given for developing a plan to help emphasize student studies on science, technology, engineering and math, called STEM. The application does not dictate any other specific areas of student study.

Another section includes turning around lowest-achieving schools. To do this, lawmakers expect to create a statewide “achievement” school district that will adopt those institutions and take over instructional oversight such as hiring and firing decisions.This section makes up 10 percent of the application and requires lawmakers to pass new legislation this week.

The application is due by 4:30 p.m. Jan. 19. Winning states will be announced in April.

The U.S. Department of Education will accept a second wave of applications on June 1, 2010, from states that missed the first deadline or were rejected in the Spring.