Blog: The Educated Reporter

Where Does Tennessee Stand on Race to the Top?

Tennessee’s Race to the Top application was pretty honest, the state’s Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman told an EWA audience at Vanderbilt University in May.

“It basically started out by saying things aren’t going very well, they could be going better, here are the things we’re going to do to get better,” he said during an EWA National Seminar session on where Tennessee stands with the competitive federal education reform initiative.

Using NAEP, ACT and post-secondary attainment to measure its growth, the state set out to be the fastest improving in the country in educational outcomes.

Huffman told the EWA audience in Nashville that the state has seen some areas of success, some areas where enormous work needs to be done and some areas he is optimistic about.

“We’re midstream and we have a lot of work ahead of us,” he said.

In 2010, Tennessee was one of two states (the other was Delaware) that won $501 million in the first round of the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition.

Matthew Springer, a Vanderbilt University professor, has been working with the Tennessee Consortium on Research, Evaluation and Development — an independent research and policy group that is focusing on educational initiatives in the state. The consortium has created a centralized data warehouse that allows them to look at trends over time.

Springer said he believed that Tennessee’s application for Race to the Top was written around great teachers and leaders and putting the best educators in front of the state’s most disadvantaged students and making sure that everyone has an adequate educational opportunity.

He said as a professor he sees a unfortunate disconnect between educational research, practice and policy.

“Yes, practice and policy…are driving the change and are often out in front of where research is, but I see us so often times operating in three separate silos,” Springer said.

But part of the consortium’s mission — which isn’t always easy, successful or done well, he noted —  is trying to create new mechanisms around conversations around the research they are seeing and to inform practices and policies.

Race to the Top in Tennessee has inspired an innovative and comprehensive system of reforms, Springer said.

“It’s really amazing ,not only to see the changes to the office space within the Department of Education downtown, but the reforms that they have really implemented statewide and the rigor that they brought to them,” he said.

But when he puts on his research hat, he said he has to ask if the reforms are sustainable and he doesn’t know if the federal government has had the program in place long enough for the state to know what’s working and what’s not working.

“We know that reforms that are showing effect take at least three to five years,” Springer said.

“As we’ve had Race to the Top in place since (the 2011-12 school year), do we have enough time now that we’re transitioning out of having this federal funding … to say these are the programs that work, these are the programs that we need to hold on to.”


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