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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?

On March 29, I had my answer: Tennessee and Delaware were the only states to win funding in the competition’s first round. Out of 41 applications, theirs were the highest-ranked, and the Department awarded full funding: about $100 million for Delaware and $501.8 million for Tennessee.

Many dozens of dedicated people helped Tennessee prevail. My role in strategizing, developing, and co-authoring the application with a team of colleagues and Tennesseans gave me a front-row seat to the ultimate show—or showdown—in education policymaking. This competition sparked a collision between theory and practice on a massive scale. Race to the Top demands concrete proposals on issues over which researchers continue to duel: pay for performance, school turnaround models, measuring teacher effectiveness based on student academic growth, and so on. Regardless of the research, the Race to the Top application left little doubt on the direction states had to take, or which side of these debates they had to choose. Boldness on the ideals that the Department cared about would win points, while small pilot projects would not. And because each application had to be signed by a governor, politics mattered as much as policy—if not more,

So how did Tennessee pull it off? The state has many advantages: a robust student-teacher data system, legislation that included student growth in educator evaluations, and state leadership that sees good public schools as the cornerstones of thriving communities. But some shrewd political moves and a remarkable openness to new ideas ultimately sealed the deal.

First, we all assumed we would lose, not win. My competitive streak, nurtured over nearly a decade as a newspaper reporter, consumed me. Everywhere I turned, I feared that states were doing better: Colorado had a relentless, organized planning process; Pennsylvania designed a snappy, clear application summary for its districts; other states hired such well-heeled firms as McKinsey & Co. or the Parthenon Group. By contrast, my colleagues and the Tennessee planning team called ourselves the “mule team” to denote our scrappy, hard-working nature. Our Power Points were not jazzy; our meetings often consumed entire days. We debated ordering T-shirts proclaiming, “My Marriage Survived Race to the Top.” We ignored the prognosticators who picked Tennessee as victors and instead delved into the writing of the proposal, convinced that in order to win, we needed to make our application sing.

Second, Governor Bredesen, a Democrat, was engaged fully. He wanted regular updates on the process and relished the give-and-take of policy discussions. And he was not afraid to use the political capital that comes from being a popular, two-term governor, from meeting directly with the Tennessee Education Association to buttonholing legislators. His staff also figured that with 37 gubernatorial elections on the ballot, judges would want to know how states would sustain controversial reforms. That foresight helped Tennessee score a coup: a letter supporting the state’s application from all seven Democratic and Republican candidates for governor. The education bloggers have it wrong when they equate stakeholder support for Tennessee’s application with solely union support. Tennessee’s champions came in all stripes.

Third, the diverse nature of the planning team helped. It included Tennessee-based representatives of a national non-profit that works on teacher quality issues, Tennessee’s largest philanthropic foundation, and a Chattanooga local education fund. They served with the Tennessee Education Commissioner, executive director of the Board of Education, and a public higher education representative, and others. States that rely only on state bureaucrats or only the big-picture policy wonks are mistaken. Tennessee leaned on people who could get the work done day-to-day as well as those whose jobs expose them to big policy ideas nationally.

Finally, Tennessee charted a reform plan that was both innovative and pragmatic. Statewide pay for performance is a polarizing idea; Tennessee handled the issue by setting up an in-state incentive fund so districts and unions that were ready to experiment could tap $12 million to do so. On the issue of including student growth in educator evaluations, Tennessee believes in the power of value-added assessment but acknowledges that it doesn’t convey everything. So basing 35 percent of an educator’s evaluation on value-added growth and another 15 percent on other measures seemed a reasonable proposal. In addition, the state’s “Achievement School District,” which will work exclusively with its lowest-achieving schools, grants the commissioner new intervention authority. But instead of a blind state takeover, the proposal calls for a thoughtful, on-the-ground assessment of each school’s strengths and needs so interventions with non-profits and others can be more powerful. Some may call these balancing acts cop-outs, but Tennessee can call them winning. After all, what’s the point of laboring night and day for months on an application that purports to be bold but ultimately has no takers?

Strange as it may seem, the last six months on the ground in the Volunteer State was the easy part. Implementation—translating $501.8 million of bold policy promises into plans that will touch teachers, principals, and families—is the true test. Tennessee has a long road ahead, but the same strengths that carried it to the victory will push it across the next finish line.

As for me, I’ve got a T-shirt to order.

Anand Vaishnav is a consultant with Education First Consulting. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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: