Race to the Top Revisited

Mar 08, 2023 at 01:05 pm by JC Bowman


In 2010, Tennessee was one of the first states in the country to be awarded the Race to the Top (RTTT) grants. The $501 million grant award created a real shift in Tennessee’s approach to public education. When the money arrived in the state, so did a lot of other groups “to help” with the “implementation” of the grant. Those federal funds and political leaders are long gone. Many of the groups or spinoffs remain.

Since then, other monies have come into our state that also impacts our policies, especially education. We need additional media scrutiny to enhance accountability for advocacy philanthropy and the organizations that impact our policies, especially education.

Today we see philanthropists and national foundations influencing our policies and becoming exceedingly political. It is one reason that our association is concerned about out-of-state money and its influence on education policies in Tennessee. We fear that taxpayers, parents, and educators are being silenced. Our education system works best with parental support and involvement---including at the legislature.

The first graduating class from the Race to the Top era is in 2023. The question taxpayers should ask: “Did Race to The Top accomplish what federal and state education officials promised it would? Did it create positive or negative systems or processes in our schools or districts? Did we improve the relationship between local public schools and their families, staff, students, partners, and community members? Is there more trust in educational institutions or less? Did it turn around failing schools? Did we see student achievement escalate? Are our students improved in reading, writing, and basic math? What did we accomplish?”  

The four key areas Tennessee focused on with Race to the Top dollars were:

  1. Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace.
  2. Building data systems that measure student growth and success and informing teachers and principals on how to improve instruction.
  3. Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most.
  4. Turning around their lowest-performing schools.

Many education debates at the Tennessee General Assembly are from issues and failed policies from Race to the Top. Standards and assessment continue to be discussed which is reflected this year at the Tennessee General Assembly. Teacher recruitment and retention is an issue that has seemingly worsened. The failure of the state-run Achievement School District has been one of the most egregious examples of failure. Legislators are working to eliminate it this year.

People often need to be reminded that the Third-Grade Student Retention Law which is now being debated is rooted in the reform from Race to the Top. Initially passed in 2011, the Tennessee General Assembly added teeth to the retention law in 2021 because of the number of children deemed not proficient on statewide testing. It appears very few changes are likely because of the concern about graduating another generation of children who cannot read on grade level. Many have asked, “Why did it take a decade to address this issue?” The unskilled, uneducated, and illiterate face impossible odds in our world. 

The 3rd Grade Retention issue also highlights another issue, which will likely be corrected moving forward. Retention will not solely be based on scores from a single-state test but will likely include statewide reading benchmark tests that measure students’ reading skills, fluency, and comprehension administered by the district.

The overuse of testing began under No Child Left Behind and increased under Race to the Top. Peter Greene in describing Race to The Top states that it “brutalized the teaching profession and demanded that states turn schools into test-centric soul-mashing data centers.”

Tennessee has gone from winning the Race to the Top Grant in 2010 to looking at possibly rejecting federal money for education. Speaker Cameron Sexton floated this idea, which is shared by several prominent Tennesseans because Washington mandates are hurting, and not helping many Tennessee schools and students. Sometimes federal mandates or programs have little to do with actual education.

Certain federal mandates stand in the way of innovative state and local reforms, while others force state and local officials to be more concerned with paperwork than performance. Sexton is right. Tennessee must focus on academic achievement instead of conforming to bureaucratic requirements. There is no greater example of the failure of the Race to the Top in Tennessee than the shift in philosophy on Federal involvement in education. 


 JC Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee

Sections: Politics Education