Lessons from Race to the Top

This post was originally shared in an email on April 2, 2021. If you would like to receive my next email update, you can sign up here.

I have been thinking a lot about the early years of Race to the Top recently.

I moved to Nashville in 2011 to work at the Tennessee Department of Education. Tennessee had won one of the first two Race to the Top grants with bipartisan legislation and an ambitious plan, and the state had $500M to invest in innovative support to advance student learning.

Never in my life did I think I would have the opportunity to work on a team with access to these kinds of resources. Half of the money went to districts directly, half to state-wide initiatives with significant strategies around school turnaround, evaluation, and standards and assessments. I was most involved in a $20M peer-to-peer training effort that helped 47,000 teachers and principals learn about the new standards and key instructional practices.

As I reflect on that chapter of significant investment, I remember how resources powered a different kind of dreaming for students. I remember the emotion in the room when I asked committees of educators so acculturated to scrimping and saving to “pretend money was no object.” I remember the good ideas that came out in our conversations as soon as space was created.

I also remember how much the money created moments of frenzy. I remember how hard vendors worked to get in front of me to make a pitch. I remember how much effort it took to manage coherent work across vendors once the contracts were awarded. I remember internal conversations trying to generate creative ways to spend money effectively and fast when faced with a reversion deadline. And, at the same time, I remember how hard it was to procure basic things like an event registration system, even if we had the money to pay for it.

Thanks to the hard work of thousands of people, during the Race to the Top years students in Tennessee made more progress on the NAEP assessment than they had made before, with notable acceleration among students of color and students in poverty.

A couple of years ago, a group from that era’s leadership team met to reflect on what we thought drove the progress and what we learned from the work. We all acknowledged that because we did so many things at once, it was hard to know exactly what led to those gains, and we saw how the seeds of the gains were planted before that chapter. We formed hypotheses about which particular strategies played the biggest role in the results and they circled around a combination of support and accountability to clearer and higher standards. But as rigorously as we measured and evaluated every aspect of our plan, none of us felt like we could point to “the thing” or a simple playbook.

Ultimately, it felt like the set of principles that guided the work seemed to matter more than discrete strategies. We talked about how we wish we had continuously increased expectations for ourselves across strategies, or how we wish we had engaged stakeholders around the process in a different way, or how we wish we had pursued the same goal with a different blend of accountability and support. We felt that if we had applied some of these core principles more faithfully, we could have seen more progress or more consistent improvement.

American education is entering a chapter of investment of historic proportion. The amount of money in this chapter makes Race to the Top look miniscule — Tennessee will have 5x the amount to spend in a little more than half the time. Every state and district will be figuring out what to do with the money at the same time, without the same required upfront planning or evaluation requirements and on a timeline that feels incredibly tight.

This resourcing presents enormous opportunities. With it, we can:

  • Meet needs: Students and families have significant needs and this funding creates the opportunity for schools to meet those needs in ways we have never thought about before. We know the impact of the past year has exacerbated existing inequities and these resources create the opportunity to materially meet the needs of students of color, students in poverty, students with disabilities, and students learning English.
  • Learn: States and communities will anchor to different goals and values, and will leverage different strategies. If we bring some intention to our data gathering, we can learn so much about what does and does not work and what approaches particularly support historically marginalized groups.
  • Create new patterns: This funding gives us the opportunity to set some new habits in how we make decisions and create new routines or structures that can disrupt patterns of inequity and create a new normal.

As communities consider these opportunities, I hope we will learn from lessons of past significant investment. If my own experience and perspective can be useful, I hope those lessons will lead communities to:

  1. Start with the vision and goals, not the budget. Consider first a very clear vision for how we want the student experience to change. Focus first on a vision and goals for historically underserved students.
  2. Get explicit about the guiding principles for the work and make sure the planning and improvement processes reflect those principles.
  3. Choose a few big strategies aligned to the goals, not a lot of small ideas. Focus on strategies that grow what is already working and build from what we know works more than strategies that rely on inventing something new and, as hard as it is, stay disciplined about the big levers rather than diffusing energy and resources. Get clear on what these strategies mean in key actions in every role in the ecosystem.
  4. Obsess about coherence and alignment, and stay vigilant about the ways that strategies may inadvertently work at cross-purposes or send mixed messages.
  5. Acknowledge that no plan will be right out the gate. The plans that will lead to gains will be those that improve and evolve over time. The teams that evolve their plans will have real clarity about the question, “How will we know if it is working?” They will also have data collection and strategy refinement processes scheduled from the start.

I hope that when we look back at this chapter we will be able to say, “This money allowed us to meet needs for students and families, particularly students that have been historically underserved. It allowed us to create sustainable new patterns and routines to continue to improve. It brought our communities together around a stronger-than-ever vision of what we want for our young people and our future.”

Here are some resources I’ve been learning from recently that may help:

  • Key actions committees can consider based on findings from Rethinking Intervention
  • Rise to Thrive from the Center for Public Research and leadership
  • Harnessing Tensions from Jenee Henry Wood and Jeff Wetzler at Transcend
  • The Acceleration Imperative, a plan to address unfinished learning in elementary school, created by a collaborative of schools and organizations

Instruction Partners CEO, former AssistCommish for TDOE, library lover, Sunday afternoon chef and head of the Jan, Owen and Liam fan club.

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