First to the Top
Tennessee’s application for Race to the Top articulated a compelling vision for education in Tennessee. This vision brought together all districts from across the state and created policy conditions favorable to executing a robust reform strategy. As the state and districts began launching comprehensive reform and support initiatives, Tennessee set the goal to become the fastest improving state in the nation by 2015, and to continue to close achievement gaps as we grew overall student achievement.
With the hard work of students, educators, and leaders, Tennessee’s ambitious growth goal became a reality. The release of the 2013 NAEP results exhibited the great potential of education in Tennessee as students’ scores improved by more than 21 points—the strongest state improvement in the nation. The achievement gains were reflected across national and state assessments. Tennessee scored above the national norm for the first time on the 2013 PLAN and EXPLORE assessments, marking substantial growth over prior years and serving as an indicator of the progress the state hopes to see on ACT results in the coming years. The state also demonstrated consistent improvements on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) math, reading, science, and high school end-of-course exams. More than 100,000 additional Tennessee students are on grade level in math compared to 2010, and 57,000 additional students are on grade level in science. Achievement gaps for minority students narrowed in math and reading at both the 3-8 grades and high school levels. These successes provide both a reason to celebrate and a further call to action. Tennessee now knows its ability to improve and to achieve, and it must continue to do so for students across the state.
Tennessee’s Race to the Top initiatives continue to be a foundational component of our strategy to reach the ambitious goals already achieved and those toward which the state continues to strive. With the opportunity to invest in meaningful changes for students, Tennessee raised expectations with higher standards and assessments, improved data systems to support instruction, supported teachers and leaders with strategies to increase effectiveness, broadened its turnaround efforts, and launched an innovative STEM plan across the state. Through these projects, the state recognized that successful outcomes depended on the state evolving into the right support system for the students, educators, leaders, and districts that engage in these efforts in classrooms every day. To do so, the state prioritized key strategies in all of its initiatives:
- Invest in Strong Partnerships: Improving educational outcomes for students demands investment and collaboration from a whole community of supports. The partnership of districts, school leaders, and teachers was absolutely central in achieving results. Whether through locally driven initiatives such as the LEA Scope of Work Fund or through statewide efforts using highly effective teachers to lead their peers such as the Reward School Ambassador Program and Core Coaches, the experience, needs, strategies, and talents of Tennessee’s educators set the stage for successful policies and implementation. The state also partnered with nationally recognized organizations that brought experience and expertise to the state’s educational reforms. For example, the National Institute on Excellence in Teaching created the state’s first evaluation data system and the Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning and Innovation developed college and career-ready standards and professional development resources for teacher preparation programs. The state relied on these strategic partnerships to ensure that the reform efforts were both effective and sustainable.
- Continuously Improve Service: As Tennessee boldly implemented policies and supports designed to improve student achievement, the state remained dedicated to evaluating its work and seeking opportunities to improve its service delivery. The state developed an internal research team, the Office of Research and Policy, to provide ongoing analysis of the state’s implementation efforts. By using data and strong analyses to drive decisions, program teams were able to make adjustments and to scale up successful strategies based on this feedback. The state also partnered with an external evaluation group, Vanderbilt University’s Tennessee Consortium on Research, Evaluation and Development, to capture the long-term impacts of the state’s reform agenda through in-depth research studies and educator feedback collected through the First to the Top Survey. The state used the findings from these teams to make improvements to policy and implementation, such as adjusting evaluation components and the observation rubric based in part on stakeholder feedback from the First to the Top Survey. The findings surfaced by both of these teams allow the state to improve the quality of the supports in place and to inform policy moving forward.
- Align Resources to Priorities: Recognizing that Race to the Top provided a unique opportunity to create, to explore, and to scale strategies to improve education in Tennessee, the state also knew that this resource would not sustain these efforts moving forward. The state strategically reorganized its internal capacity to embed these initiatives within the state’s structures. Divisions for Teachers & Leaders and Curriculum & Instruction were created and took ownership of efforts in human capital strategy and the transition to more rigorous standards and assessments. To better serve districts, the compliance-driven regional service centers were realigned into Centers of Regional Excellence (CORE), dedicated to providing tailored support to districts in improving student outcomes. As a result, the state is not experiencing a cliff with the end of the grant period, but is instead well-positioned to continue to support districts in implementing the key strategies to improve student achievement.
Ultimately, the state is dedicated to being a service-oriented agency, supporting districts and stakeholders in the delivery of a high-quality education to all Tennessee students. Educators, districts, and partners across the state contributed a tremendous amount of effort in executing the ambitious plan under the assurance areas of Race to the Top, becoming the driving force behind the progress Tennessee is experiencing and will continue to achieve moving forward.