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Thompson: Tennessee's Rushed Implementation of "Race"

RaceToTheTopElaine Weiss, of the Broader, Bolder Approach, has written an early draft of the history of the Race to the Top.  Her Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Education Improvement recounts the “unrealistic and impossible” promises made by states to win federal grants, and how they are likely to undermine future efforts to improve schools.

Anyone who doubts Weiss’ warnings about the RttT should turn immediately to Appendix Two, a case study on Tennessee’s implementation of the grant, and how it created “a culture of fear.”    

After winning its RttT grant in March, 2110, Tennessee authorized a capacity review of its department of education which concluded that “the organization and the work wasn’t organized in a way that supported implementation.”  

Within four months, however, Tennessee leaped ahead and committed to Common Core standards. Despite anticipating a decline of as much as 50 points on average per grade and subject, state still insisted, “We believe our ultimate goal of 100% proficiency is still the right one—no matter whether the assessment is old or new.” 

The rush to reform accelerated in 2011 when Tennessee tackled the heart of the RttT, its teacher evaluation promises.  Only three months had been allocated for formulating teacher observation tools and training evaluators in their use. A four-day summer session trained over 5,000 evaluators.

The New York Times’ Michael Winerip and Education Week's Liana Heitin reported on the backlash to the RttT's "teacher quality" approach. One principal complained about the hurried policy’s “insult to my best teachers,” the paperwork, and the “terrible waste of time.” He said,“I’ve never seen such nonsense.”

Winerip cited teachers who described the complex observation rubric’s requirements as “just unreasonable” The president of the Tennessee Education Association reported that teachers were spending four to 12 hours to prepare detailed lesson plans that are “almost a script” to fulfill guidelines. One teacher said, “I love teaching, but I’m starting to hate my job.” Another said that “morale is in the toilet.”

Even Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, called the measures “extraordinarily complex,” and said that he didn’t really understand what they meant or “how I as a teacher would be expected to perform them.” Whitehurst said that rushing into the untested system “doesn’t pass the common-sense test for being a measure of what it’s intended to measure.” Weiss also cited warnings of perverse disincentives to serve in hard-to-staff schools.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE)  recommended providing more time and training for administrators and teachers to use the rubric, and linking feedback more explicitly to high-quality individual learning opportunities to improve instruction.

By 2012, however, under the leadership of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, RttT implementation had become even more manic. Huffman restructured the DOE. And, he rejected SCORE’s recommendation because “the new evaluation system is already improving instruction.”

Elementary students were being subjected to 30 days a year of test prep and testing, and students’ grades were tied to their test scores. The state was committed to pay Pearson testing company a total of $115 million. And, political commitments to out-of-state charter schools were raising eye brows.

Then, the seemingly good news was that, in a rare reversal, Huffman granted a waiver to Promise Academy charter because it is developmentally inappropriate to place high-stakes on elementary school students’ grades.  But, Huffman denied the waiver to traditional public schools.

Weiss then recounts questionable intrusions by the state into district’s relationships with charters. Even though the Promise Academy went through two principals in five years and was on the state ‘target’ list because of its low reading scores, it avoided being shut down and was listed as authorized to take over “failing” public schools. Weiss notes that several of the charter’s Academy’s board officers were contributors to the governor.

Nashville twice turned down the charter application of Great Hearts, which was based in Arizona, because it sought to locate in a wealthy neighborhood and refused to provide transportation to disadvantaged students. A review of Great Hearts’ record in Arizona showed that in 11 of its 12 schools, only 7% of students qualified for free and reduced-price lunch and less than 1% were English-language learners, “a shockingly low percentage for a border state”

After the Nashville board rejected the application, Huffman issued the district a $3.4 million fine.

Weiss further reports on the rough starts of charter schools that have taken over “failing” Memphis schools as part of the state’s Achievement School District. They are accused of cultural and racial insensitivity. Another recent report finds that, “low-scoring students in Nashville are being pushed out of charter schools and into traditional public schools just before end-of-the-year tests. This practice inflates average scores in the charter schools while lowering them among some of the public schools that were already struggling.” In 2013, the eight Nashville schools with the highest rates of attrition were charters, and they lost up to 33 percent of their students during the year. 

Weiss also notes the unusually high fees that Tennessee was able to pay Teach for America for recruits using Stimulus funds, and the state’s disinterest in other approaches to training teachers. And she cites speculation regarding the weak foundation that Tennessee has laid for Common Core.  

But, you get the point. Weiss has only written a first draft of the history of RttT, but her detailed analysis of Tennessee’s and Ohio’s experience raises disturbing questions.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.




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Race to the Top has been the driving force in education policy in Tennessee since 2010. The First to the Top legislation was strongly supported by many stakeholders, as well as the teachers' union. Our organization, Professional Educators of Tennessee, was not invited to participate in this process by the Bredesen administration.

A simple internet search and documentation can provide additional history and background, as well as who was involved in the process. Also undeniable is that the union was instrumental in the development and design of the current evaluation system. And the union gave their political endorsement and political contributions to President Obama, the federal architect of the Race to the Top in 2008 and again in 2012, as well as many of the supporters of First to the Top legislation in 2010 and 2012.

Based on the Race to the Top Application, supported in 2010 by state and local union leaders, they agreed that 50 percent of teacher evaluations would include 35 percent based on student growth on tests. In fact, 131 of 136 participating districts and 4 state special schools submitted all three applicable signatures - superintendent, school board president, and union leader in the Race to the Top Application.

Additionally, the state had a 93% success rate in obtaining the signature of every applicable local teachers' union leader, and the application confirms 115 out of 124 local union leaders signed the Race to the Top Application.

In hindsight, it would have been a better strategy to have ensured a more reflective voice for classroom teachers at the time. It could be argued that the evaluation system is at least partly responsible for driving quality teachers out of the profession.

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