Tennessee survived the first cut in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top school reform competition Thursday, staying in the running for a share of $4 billion in federal money.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Tennessee is among 16 finalists, along with Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina. Forty states applied in January. The winners are to be announced in April.
"These states are an example for the country of what is possible when adults come together to do the right thing for children," Duncan said. "Everyone that applied for Race to the Top is charting a path for education reform in America."
Tennessee is asking for $500 million. Gov. Phil Bredesen called a surprise seven-day special session of the legislature in January to adopt education reforms to strengthen the state’s application.
At the time, Bredesen said Obama’s initiative “has made the stars line up to create some opportunities that no one has really expected. I have a little sign on my desk. It says ‘carpe diem’ — seize the day — and that’s what I’m trying to do here with education. … There is a lot at stake here.”
The governor’s key proposal was changing the law to mandate the use of student achievement test scores to evaluate teachers and decide pay and tenure. Passage came swiftly on only the fourth day of the special session, with little of the usual partisan bickering in the legislature.
Bredesen assured success by striking a compromise with the Tennessee Education Association, which represents 55,000 of the state’s teachers. Under the deal, 35 percent of each teacher’s evaluation would be based on tests that track students' progress over time. Another 15 percent could come from other data to be determined by the special 15-member committee.
The governor touts the state’s 17 years of student testing as the richest data in the country on whether teachers are doing their jobs well. He said the so-called value-added tests, intended to measure the gain in knowledge over a year, show that a “startling” two-thirds of the difference in student performance is explained by teacher quality.
Also among the reforms adopted in the special session:
• Granting the state commissioner of education the authority to create a special school district — an Achievement School District — for the purposes of interceding in consistently failing schools, and getting them back on track.
• Placing a statewide emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math.
• Vastly expanding professional development for teachers and principals.