TN schools outline plans for Race to the Top grants

(From The Tennessean, June 23, 2010)


Tennessee school districts will hire new teachers and staff and make technology upgrades that would otherwise be unthinkable in tight budget times after getting a surge of cash this fall from the federal Race to the Top program.

Half of the $500 million in prize money awarded to Tennessee for winning the school reform competition will go to local school districts; the other half will be spent at the state level. Tennessee and Delaware were the first winners in the national contest, created by the Obama administration to encourage radical change in public school policy.

Local school districts get a say in how to spend the money over the next four years, but their plans must line up with what was promised in the state’s application.

Metro Nashville Public Schools, which is getting the second-largest award in the state, approved a plan Tuesday night to use some of the $30.3 million to install new technology in schools so teachers can participate in video conferencing and online training.

The 76,000-student district also plans to hire 12 data coaches to help teachers and principals learn how to better use academic data to guide lesson plans.

But the bulk of the award will be invested in teacher training. Metro wants to create a new model to spot talented teachers and develop them into administrators and principals.

“It’s an investment in people that is sustainable,” Schools Director Jesse Register said. “We want to develop teachers and leaders.”

Rutherford County schools will use its $3.6 million award to hire a data coach and to invest in teacher development. Rutherford gets far less than its urban neighbor because it has fewer impoverished students enrolled.

That district, which has 36,000 students, also wants to set up a “parent portal” so parents can see their child’s grades online.

“The programs proposed are meant to expand on existing strategies we have in place, such as data tracking, increased standards and differentiated instruction to reach all skill levels in every classroom,” said district spokesman James Evans.

Williamson County is slated to receive only $331,000 because of its wealthy student population. Because of the small award, it and 27 other districts getting less than $342,000 are eligible for a $9 million state grant.

Plans detailing how districts will spend the Race to the Top money probably will be approved by the state this week. Amanda Anderson, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the state would not release copies of the plans until they are approved.

Eyes are on Tennessee

Experts, policymakers and academics across the country are watching Tennessee to see how the grant money is spent and if it creates better test scores and stronger teachers.

One potential pitfall is that the district-level spending won’t support the broad promises outlined by the state, said Charlie Barone, director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that supports changes to public schools.

Many of the proposed expenses from Metro and Rutherford County are going to support established initiatives, not new programs spurred by Race to the Top.

“There’s a lot of risks in this budget climate for the money to be spent on a school budget wish list and not on the state plan,” Barone said. “The temptation to use this to favor pet projects or certain vendors is going to be huge.”

Spokeswoman Anderson said Tennessee is on the right track.

“We changed our laws, our charter school laws. Those are changes that have already happened, and we’ve just begun,” she said.

“I can’t imagine we won’t have sustainable reform at the end of these four years.”