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Volume 26, Number 3
May/June 2010

How I Survived Race to the Top

Helping Tennessee Win Round One


I knew that the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program was unlike any grant competition I had ever seen when I watched my printer spit out the application page by page. Twenty pages. Fifty pages. Eighty pages. How much more? I thought with heart beating and stomach sinking. The document totaled 103 pages, including a glossary, budget instructions, and charts to complete. Forget about answering all the criteria: This thing had sub-sub-sub-criteria (as in, Section (D)(2)(iv)(b)).

The consulting firm where I worked, Education First Consulting, was helping three states write their Race to the Top applications. Several colleagues and I were assigned to Tennessee, often mentioned as a front-runner. Although we had worked with a state planning team for three months before the Department released the application in November, any smug notion of a head start evaporated once I started thumbing through the document. How would we connect these education reform dots? How would Tennessee get districts and teachers unions to sign on to the plan? What will it take to win—and does Tennessee have a shot?

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

A. Smarick, “The Full Story on Race to the Top.” American Enterprise Institute. Available online at

Tennessee’s Race to the Top Executive Summary. Available online at

Tennessee’s Complete Race to the Top application. Available online at

U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top web site: