The Real Story on Tennessee and the Race to the Top

Buy-in by teachers – specifically, their unions – has been widely cited as the main reason Tennessee won the Race to the Top.

Not true.  In February, the Tennessee Education Association told members that the organization was hit by a “tsunami of political, economic, business, and media forces”—a reaction consistent with the real reason for the state’s victory.

The real story is that a critical mass of Tennessee officials and their constituents had long suspected that some schools are far more effective than others, but only recently did they realize that they have the means to measure and prove it.  An increasingly widespread understanding of Tennessee’s Value Added Assessment System (TVAAS) is at the heart of this change.

TVAAS has been in place since the early 1990s, but was marginalized by a lack of public and educator attention. Over the last five years, however, public and policymaker awareness has changed significantly.   A number of bottom-up efforts are responsible for the change.  Now, with the leadership of the governor and a statewide reform initiative known as SCORE, TVAAS has become the centerpiece of Tennessee’s RTTT reforms.  Achievement gains have been made a clear schooling priority.

One of the greatest barriers to wider usage of TVAAS data by schools has been a lack of teacher and administrator training. For reasons having to do with educational theory and philosophy, Tennessee’s teacher training programs never supported, much less embraced, the use of TVAAS data.  With RTTT, Tennessee is stepping around this problem: they are now developing online instruction in the use of TVAAS, and a new State Board of Education policy has relaxed restrictions on alternative teacher licensure.  Going forward, all teachers will have access to TVAAS training and knowledge of TVAAS will be required for licensure and tenure.

In addition to the requirements for novice teachers, all Tennessee teacher preparation programs (including alternative programs) will be receiving a report card based on the TVAAS gains of their graduates.  In due course, state support for all such programs will be expanded or retrenched on the basis of this metric. Taken together, these policies are likely to change teacher training from an eclectic stew to tested and proven classroom practices.

Beyond preservice teacher training, the RTTT package provides for professional development that is customized to the individual teacher and assessed in terms of its impact on the individual’s effectiveness.  Because professional development for teachers has historically taken the form of coursework, advanced degree programs, and workshops, teacher-education faculty will be faced with another stiff challenge.  Funding will be available only for professional development experiences that result in improved teacher effectiveness.

Finally and most significantly, Tennessee’s RTTT package requires that measured student achievement comprise at least 50% (35% based on TVAAS gains, where available) of teacher and principal performance assessments.  School districts are encouraged to base salary, tenure, and retention decisions on these assessments.

Of course, the effect of these policies will be determined by how well they are implemented, but they apparently do reflect a tectonic shift in Tennessee’s approach to public education.  There seems a growing recognition that value-added gains are a fair and important indicator of school performance and they address an issue that has crippled education reform for decades:  Poor alignment between teacher training, teaching practices, and public policy.

For more about Tennessee’s RTTT reforms, see You won’t find much about union support, but you will learn more about how officials and average citizens are coming to see that teacher and school effectiveness can be measured and improved.

J. E. Stone is president of the Education Consumers Foundation. He has taught educational psychology to teachers for over 30 years.

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