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VOL. 125 | NO. 6 | Monday, January 11, 2010

Race to the Top

Tennessee's hot pursuit of school reform dollars

By Bill Dries

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U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is part of the federal funding apparatus that has warned Tennessee and other states to remove obstacles to Race to the Top money. -- ASSOCIATED PRESS

The age of No Child Left Behind in national education is about to give way to another moniker.

The Race to the Top program is a race between states to get a share of $4.35 billion in federal stimulus money for an education reform effort.

Its four goals are supposed to be addressed in each state’s application. They are:

• Prepare students for college and the work force.

• Recruit and pay effective teachers and put them in classrooms and schools where students need the most help.

• Build a comprehensive data system to track student achievement from one year to the next and from one school to another.

• Turn around the lowest-performing schools.

The changes funded and undertaken in perhaps no more than 10 states could point all of American education in a new direction.

Or they could reignite old and perhaps eternal debates.

In the pipeline

The Obama administration program is the latest indicator that national education trends are changing profoundly, and Tennessee is already proving to be a bellwether.

State legislators will meet in a special session about a week before the Jan. 19 application deadline.

Gov. Phil Bredesen’s main purpose in calling the special session is to remove some obstacles federal officials have pointedly said states need to remove if they want a realistic shot at some of the money.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, has been the prickly tip of the political point, telling state leaders here and elsewhere when their chances are dimming.

Gov. Phil Bredesen -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

“Race to the Top isn’t just about what states are going to divvy up $4 billion,” Bredesen told a United Negro College Fund Luncheon in Memphis last month. “To me the real value … is that we have an opportunity to step back and take a look at the whole system. In a competition where data is highly valued, our state has one of the most highly thought of data systems in the country. We need to make better use of it.”

The data system is called the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS), and tracks how and what individual students learn in each classroom. TVAAS was developed at the University of Tennessee Value Added Research and Assessment Center with a formula by Dr. William Sanders. It has been used by Tennessee since 1992 and Sanders now works as a senior manager at SAS Institute Inc. of Cary, N.C., which has developed software for other states and school systems.

The 17 years worth of data are what make Tennessee attractive to education reformers who are increasingly focused on finding ways to judge teacher effectiveness, retain good teachers, promote great teachers and get rid of poor ones.

“That has been a third rail of education for a long time,” Bredesen said. “Memphis is really stepping right up to the plate in addressing this.”

With $90 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation over the next five to seven years, Memphis City Schools officials have not only a source of funding, but something the Bredesen administration hopes to duplicate across the state: an agreement with union leaders to use student testing data earlier in teachers’ careers.

“In a competition where data is highly valued, our state has one of the most highly thought of data systems in the country. We need to make better use of it.”

– Gov. Phil Bredesen

The agreement by the Memphis Education Association was instrumental in MCS winning the Gates grant in November. And it came by giving the teachers union a seat at the table in continuing discussions and monitoring how the data is used.

The MEA and the Tennessee Education Association have longstanding concerns that student testing data can be leaned on too heavily in deciding which teachers are effective.

Setting rigid national or even state standards for students to meet, the argument goes, will damage the careers of good teachers who might manage to chart significant improvements in what their students learn, but still not hit the testing goals. The groups also fear hitting the goals becomes a pass or fail test for teachers without any continuing effort to use the results to help them through additional training, exposure to new methods and mentoring.

Dollar signs

More pay – up to $100,000 a year for master teachers – could come quicker than the career ladder many veteran Memphis teachers have been climbing since the early 1980s.

“For a long time, you advanced in teaching by how many years you had been in the profession,” said MCS Supt. Kriner Cash. “We have a system not unlike others that takes 18 years to get to the top step. … We think that needs to change. We’re proposing an overhaul or some flexibility to be able to develop an alternative compensation system. Collapse those steps into maybe three main levels – introduction or new teachers, professional teachers and master teachers.”


Jan. 11: Applications due for state fiscal stabilization funding
Jan. 19: Deadline for Race to the Top Phase I applications
March 1: Applicants who have cleared the first review notified
March 15: State teams present their proposals in Washington, D.C.
April: Phase I winners announced
June 1: Phase II applications due
September: Phase II winners announced

Opting in to that still-forming shorter career ladder will be optional.

Ken Foster, executive director of the MEA, points out that all teachers will be evaluated differently in the future, even if they remain on the old career ladder, and the evaluation is still a work in progress.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander

“The new evaluation process is for everybody,” he told The Memphis News. “There will be a new salary schedule created, but it hasn’t been created yet. We get all kinds of questions about that already. We believe it’s probably a year away – two years away. You really don’t need that salary schedule until you get the evaluation system in place, because the two of them go together.”


When the state of Tennessee sends in its application for Race to the Top federal funding, “there must not be any legal, statutory or regulatory barriers at the state level to linking data on student achievement … or student growth … to teachers and principals for purposes of teacher and principal evaluation,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The Tennessee attorney general will have to sign a statement verifying the state laws are what the application says they are. It’s not a legal opinion.
The legislative barriers to be removed do not include prohibitions that may have been negotiated in contracts between school districts and teachers unions. But the federal process for awarding the grants gives points for the extent to which the unions cooperate through signing memoranda of understanding permitting the data to be used.
Points are awarded for states offering rigorous courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The preference priority is referred to as STEM in the bureaucratic shorthand. It’s worth 15 points and applicants either get all or none of them.
The points are awarded based on how well the STEM subjects and courses are integrated with industry experts, universities, research centers and museums.
The STEM plans must also address the under-representation of females in the subject areas as well as the career areas.
Last month, Gov. Phil Bredesen rolled out just such a partnership with Battelle, the company that manages the Oak Ridge National Laboratory along with the University of Tennessee. Battelle is to set up a network of STEM courses at schools across the state.
The states develop budgets for spending the federal money as well as milestones they plan to meet. The U.S. Department of Education evaluates whether the states have met the goals. States must submit a yearly report for that purpose. The states have a four-year period to carry out their plans and spend the grant money.
The money will begin to flow in September.
The state has its reform plan under Race to the Top and local school districts then sign up for the reform effort through memoranda of understanding or some other kind of binding agreements. The school districts must agree to participate in “all or significant portions” of the state plan.
The state defines what those significant portions are, and the subgrants to the school districts are handed out. The subgrants are half of the Race to the Top grant a state will get. The school districts can’t be limited based on demographics or geographic characteristics, and every school district must be given the opportunity to participate.
– Bill Dries

“If the monetary incentives are there, we certainly believe that there will be a number of current teachers that will opt in to the new salary schedule,” Foster added.

The Memphis school system worked with the MEA to use the TVAAS data sooner in the process of evaluating teachers. Tennessee law currently prohibits the data from being used to evaluate a teacher for tenure purposes before the teacher’s third year. After tenure, retention decisions are usually routine, with little realistic performance review for virtually all teachers, the proposal noted.

“Teachers’ most rapid growth is in the first three to five years of the profession,” said Vicki Phillips, director of education for the Gates Foundation. “Being able to use data to give them feedback, to figure out how to support them, to help them improve as part of their ongoing training and support becomes critical – as much as it is for evaluating and deciding whether they can meet a higher tenure bar.”

MEA President Stephanie Fitzgerald agreed with the purpose.

“That keeps master teachers in contact with children,” she said. “Previously, in order to make the bigger money, you had to get out of the classroom and go into administration. If you are a brilliant teacher, that’s a loss.”

In its successful TEI proposal for funding from the Gates Foundation, the school system pointed out that 40 percent of all city school teachers leave before their third year and 20 percent leave after the first year.

In the coming special legislative session, Bredesen will propose lifting the TVAAS prohibition for the state.

Rachel Woods, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Education, told The Memphis News that Sanders is developing a TVAAS “data dashboard” for teachers to use in the classroom.

“While we have always had this data, it’s not been very useful,” she said. “It doesn’t translate well to use and ease in the classroom for the average teacher to be able to use it to drive instructional changes and really improve outcomes for students.”

Financial alchemy

Such distinctions have made the difference in winning agreement for education reform as the private and now possibly federal money begins to flow.

“TEA’s been at the table with us. We’ve been working with them ever since we started talking about Race to the Top several months ago,” Woods said. “We feel like we do have a good level support from them. They may not support everything, but they certainly think this is the right direction we’re moving in.”

In a written statement on the TEA Web site, union president Earl Wiman said, “We do differ a little bit in the assessment of what we need to do.”

Wiman described the TEA, a powerful force on Nashville’s Capitol Hill, as “wary” of the reliance on testing in the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind program.

“We just want to make sure that, as we redesign this evaluation system and look at student performance, it does what it ought to do, which is to improve student learning.”

Tennessee’s own education standards, long criticized by Bredesen for being too low, are giving way to the higher standards of the Tennessee Diploma Project. Similar moves in many other states amount to the coming of what Woods termed “basically national standards.”

But the move comes on a state-by-state basis. The Obama administration is not requiring states to compete for Race to the Top funding. Woods estimates maybe 10 states will win a share of the more than $4 billion in the two rounds of funding this year.

“(Tennessee) could (request) more than $500 million, probably not less than $400 million – at least that much to do the scope of work that we are proposing,” she told The Memphis News.

Half of the Race to the Top funding would go to state government, which would award some of it to various local school systems in the form of competitive grants. The other half would go to the local school systems that agree to participate.

Some of the state initiatives to be included in the Race to the Top application will be carried out even if Tennessee strikes out in both rounds. Other initiatives rely heavily on federal dollars to a state that has more than a year’s worth of monthly revenue shortfalls and the worst budget outlook Bredesen has faced since taking office in 2003.

The money is what breathes life into an idea education reformers have long discussed and political leaders have long debated.

“Obviously, Memphis is ahead of the curve with the Gates money that they have received,” Woods said. “But it’s something that we would like to see used – pay for performance statewide – and getting those dollars would allow that to happen. Every district has a pay-for-performance model – it may or may not be based on data right now – although no district can fund it. There’s just no dollars out there now.”

Making that theory reality would set in motion other controversial changes.

Expecting the worst

“Every district has a pay- for-performance model ... although no district can fund it.”

– Rachel Woods
Communications director, Tennessee Department of Education

With the pay-for-performance standards would come the realization of a statewide recovery district for failing schools. But the idea of using data for something other than firing teachers involves using the information to intervene sooner in schools that are not yet failing but are on the way.

With already higher state performance standards being implemented, Woods said the state is preparing for more failing schools.

“We’re going to require very intensive interventions in earlier years. Currently, we do not do as much of that,” Woods said. “We expect many more schools in districts to be failing schools, and so it would be critical to have more dollars to use for interventions in those schools.”

The Race to the Top funding would get the state involved in a much more aggressive way and sooner than the current warnings or district-supervised restarts used now. Currently a state takeover of a school or school district means the local district comes up with a recovery plan that state education officials must approve. But the school district remains in charge.

“That would change in the future,” she said. “In the future, with the recovery district, that would be a real takeover of the school.”

Bredesen, who is beginning the last of his eight years as governor, has always said he sees problems in state officials from Nashville running failed schools in another city. He has talked instead of the state taking control of failed schools and turning them over to a local entity. The example he has used in the case of Memphis is a school district of failed schools run by educators from the University of Memphis’ College of Education.

Race to the Top is a mix of decades old education concepts that, on their own, have inspired as much organized resistance as vocal support. And some of the most identifiable concepts – charter schools, pay for performance and the use of student testing data for teacher hiring and retention decisions – come with a line running through them that divides Republicans from Democrats.

The reform measure, however, is a unique mixture that has bent the line and scrambled the partisan team lineups. Teachers unions are working to set the standards, which include but are not to be limited to testing results. Pay for performance is an option – a career ladder with fewer steps.

Charter schools could be the moving part that snaps back in line partisan and philosophical breaches that have been subdued for now. Some Memphis school board members have been vocal in their belief that charter schools do nothing more than siphon dollars away from more deserving, real city schools.

Duncan hasn’t minced words on the topic.

“I’m an advocate for using whatever model that works for children,” he told reporters in a June conference call. “I want charter schools to join in that work, but they won’t be able to do that in states that have laws restricting the growth of charters.”

The presence and growth of charter schools was an early flashpoint between state legislators last year when Republicans suddenly became the majority party in both chambers.

A bill to up the number of charter schools statewide stalled in May as a House committee closed up shop for the year. But the measure came back to life in June just before the Legislature adjourned.

The state’s previous cap of 50 charter schools statewide was increased to 90. The schools were also opened to enrollment by “at-risk” students. The previous standard had been more specific – limited to students who were failing or attending failing schools.

The surprising resurgence of the legislation was the result of pressure from federal education officials, and the TEA dropped its opposition.

Duncan said passing the bill would improve the state’s chances of getting Race to the Top funding. He did so in a phone call to Bredesen during the Legislature’s debate.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander co-authored with Duncan an op-ed piece in the Nashville Tennessean newspaper as the Legislature prepared to vote, which helped the effort as well.

“What I hear coming through loud and clear in Tennessee is children’s families desperately seeking these options and being denied that opportunity,” Duncan said in the conference call after the vote. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Later he told a Nashville reporter, “Some of these places, it’s easier to get into an Ivy League university than it is to get into an elementary charter school.”

And still later he specifically challenged the viewpoint of charter school critics in Memphis and elsewhere.

“Charters by definition should be taking students based upon lottery. So we’re not testing kids in,” he said. “Charters are by definition public schools. Somehow people talk about this differently. These are public schools. These are public dollars. These are our children.”

“If he succeeds with that in four years or eight years, it could be a Nixon to China exercise in education.”

– U.S . Senator Lamar Alexander On U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's effort to change teacher evaluations

Two weeks after the charter schools vote, Alexander faulted the Obama administration for not writing into its plan more federal funding for charter schools.

He also wanted to see some support for school vouchers and his own idea of Pell-type grants for parents of pre-college-age students.

A man of experience

Alexander is a former secretary of education and a two-term Tennessee governor who called a special legislative session in the 1980s to tackle education reform.

In the May floor speech in the Senate, Alexander gave the Obama education effort an A+ for “rewarding outstanding teaching.”

“If he succeeds with that in four years or eight years,” Alexander said of Duncan, “it could be a Nixon to China exercise in education.”

He called Duncan a “blue chip recruit” and gave Obama an A+ for recruiting.

Alexander gave the White House a “D” for overall funding of the federal education department he once headed and which he advocated abolishing during a brief run for the presidency in 1996.

“That is for spending $80 billion over the next two years for more of the same in the Department of Education without even asking the question: Is what we are doing working?” Alexander said. “That is hard for me to imagine.”

He also questioned Duncan’s aggressive role in distributing the funding, including the Race to the Top money.

“Instead of making Banker of the Year out of your education secretary, why don’t you let him work on the education agenda?” Alexander said in a part of his remarks.

Some critics have described Race to the Top as a one-size-fits-all approach to education reform. Duncan denies that.

“We’re just saying that there are some fundamental building blocks,” Duncan told the teacher trade publication Education Week in September. “How you get from A to B will be different. We expect a lot of variation among states.”

Duncan visited Memphis that same month, the latest in a long line of cabinet members first from George W. Bush's administration and now Obama's to be courted by city and county leaders.

Despite storm clouds gathering over the last year of former Mayor Willie Herenton's administration, Herenton as well as then-Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. managed to break the code for getting the attention of officials in Washington who have the authority to send millions of dollars to the city.

The Memphis Teacher Effectiveness Initiative has drawn a lot of attention among reformers beyond the Gates Foundation team. It has helped in the Race to the Top effort. And the Gates Foundation will be an ally in the state’s application to Washington.

“Race to the Top is certainly separate from this,” said Phillips of the Gates Foundation. “We are as a foundation supporting a number of states in their Race to the Top applications and Tennessee is one of those. Certainly the four assurances in Race to the Top … those are all-important indicators. … They are building on what Memphis has already proposed.”

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