First to the Top

Tennessee’s application for Race to the Top articulated a compelling vision for education in Tennessee. This vision brought together all districts from across the state, and created policy conditions favorable to executing against this plan. Reaching the ambitious goals we have set will dramatically change the trajectory of our education system in the state and will make Tennessee the national leader in student achievement growth. By 2015, Tennessee seeks to be the fastest improving state in the nation, as measured by NAEP and ACT assessments, and is committed to continuing to close achievement gaps as we grow overall student achievement.

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Race to the Top: 2011-13

In March of 2011, Tennessee was announced as one of the first winners of a Race to the Top grant, and was awarded $501 million to spend over four years (beginning in the 2010-11 school year through the 2013-14 school year). Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan is a foundational component of our strategy to achieve the ambitious goals we have set, and its initiatives have become an integral part of the priorities of each division within the department of education. We have undertaken a significant reorganization of the agency to ensure that our human resources align with our top priorities, and have worked closely with district leaders to ensure that we are providing meaningful support as they undertake these bold reforms. As we have been executing against this ambitious plan, we have seen continued improvement in student outcomes.

These gains mean that nearly 91,000 additional students are at or above grade level in math, and nearly 52,000 additional students are at or above grade level in all science, as compared to 2010. In addition to the gains made on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), 2012-13 marked the first year that students in Tennessee performed above the national norm on EXPLORE and PLAN results, marking substantial growth over prior years and serving as an indicator of the progress we hope to see on ACT results in the coming years.

Our results on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that our state is on its way to achieving our goal of becoming the state with the fastest improving student achievement, as Tennessee students posted bigger academic gains than those in any other state in the nation. This is consistent with the gains our students have shown over the past several years on our own standardized test, and shows that we must continue to press forward with the important changes the state has made to our education system.

At the same time that we have been implementing significant changes in our education system and seeing student outcomes rise, educators are also growing more positive over time about their work, as measured by the Teaching, Empowering, Leading, and Learning (TELL) Survey administered through the state’s Race to the Top grant. Tennessee educators responded more positively in 2013 than they did in 2011 to questions across all constructs of the survey. Of note, approximately 85 percent of educators indicated that they are recognized as educational experts and are trusted to make sound professional decisions.

The 2012-13 school year marked Tennessee’s third year of Race to the Top implementation. During this year, the department focused on several key priorities for implementation and made significant progress against these priorities, including supporting schools and districts in transitioning to the Tennessee Academic Standards, improving implementation of teacher and administrator evaluation, launching the Achievement School District, and restructuring regional offices to provide academic support to districts.

Standards and Assessments

During the 2012-13 school year, Tennessee executed its first large-scale training for educators on the transition to the Tennessee Academic Standards. During the summer of 2012, more than 200 Core Coaches (exceptional teachers from across the state who were selected through a rigorous process to lead training across the state) trained more than 11,000 of their peers on the math standards for grades 3-8. In 2011-12, the department organized a Common Core Leadership Council (CCLC), made up of district leaders across the state, which continued to meet during the 2012-13 school year and provided us with strategic guidance as we developed and refined our training and implementation plan. This group of dedicated leaders has proven to be an invaluable resource for the department and was instrumental in ensuring a successful summer training experience for schools and districts. During the 2012-13 school year, the CCLC executed a second Core Coach selection process and chose more than 700 teacher leaders who would begin their training to lead training for more than 30,000 additional educators during summer of 2013. In addition, the CCLC helped conceptualize and execute a statewide Leadership Course for principals, assistant principals, and instructional coaches on leading the transition in their schools.

In addition to the training opportunities described above, we also focused on increasing transparency around how content will be assessed, and leveraged informal assessment opportunities to provide ongoing professional development for teachers and to increase instructional time spent on the Common Core focus standards. We made available to districts two optional assessments (a constructed response assessment for math and a writing assessment) during the 2012-13 school year, while at the same time narrowing the questions on the TCAP to focus on core content.

Finally, in order to ensure that teachers coming out of pre-service programs are prepared to instruct at the level of depth and rigor required by the Tennessee Academic Standards, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) partnered with the Ayers Institute at Lipscomb University to work with teacher preparation programs in the state to develop training opportunities for faculty, curricular resources, online content, and assessments.  During the 2012-13 school year, video resources were developed with the input of institutions of higher education that include actual, full length lessons taught by Tennessee teachers and aligned to the Tennessee Academic Standards. Instructional guides, lesson plans, and copies of student work from the lessons accompany the videos. THEC continues to work with institutions to develop additional resources and develop plans for implementing these resources in their programs.

Additional information about Tennessee’s transition to the Tennessee Academic Standards can be found on

Data Systems

Tennessee’s Race to the Top application articulated a vision for a K-12 educator database (teacher dashboards) to put actionable data in the hands of educators to support their daily decision-making. All of the data that will be included in the dashboards is data that districts currently collect, but have not been able to make available to teachers in a usable form. Despite several setbacks in development and procurement, the teacher dashboards are complete and ready to roll out to districts, schools, and teachers. However, the state is still developing the base system that will power the dashboards to ensure that teachers have access to real-time, meaningful data. Towards the end of the 2012-13 school year, three districts began piloting the dashboards and will continue to do so into the 2013-14 school year. We are leveraging their experiences to continue to fine tune the dashboards and trouble shoot technical issues. We currently anticipate that the base system will be complete and the dashboards will be available for educator use by the start of the 2014-15 school year. 

Teachers and Leaders

In July 2011, Tennessee became one of the first states in the country to implement a comprehensive, student outcomes-based, statewide educator evaluation system. 50 percent of evaluation scores under this system (The Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model, or TEAM) are based on student achievement data; 35 percent (or 25 percent for teachers without individual growth scores) based on student growth as represented by the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS), and the other 15 percent based on other measures of student achievement adopted by the State Board of Education and chosen through mutual agreement by the educator and evaluator. The remaining 50 percent of the evaluation is determined through qualitative measures such as teacher observations, personal conferences and review of prior evaluations and work.

After the 2011-12 school year, the Tennessee Department of Education released a report detailing the successes and challenges of the first year of implementation that was compiled based on feedback collected from teachers and school leaders through multiple opportunities and methods, including in-person meetings and presentations by department staff in front of more than 7,500 teachers, more than 7,500 emails received through the evaluation helpdesk, two surveys generating approximately 17,000 responses, and an in-depth report and analysis by SCORE based on nine public roundtables.

The report concluded with several recommendations for changes to the evaluation system in the 2012-13 school year, all of which were successfully executed, including:

  • Further differentiating observations based on past performance
  • Eliminating some of the 15 percent achievement options
  • Creating additional 35 percent growth options
  • Refining the professionalism rubric
  • Reducing the weight of school-level TVAAS scores for teachers without individual growth scores
  • Including students with disabilities in teacher effect scores

Throughout the second year of implementation, department staff and TEAM coaches focused on continuous improvement, one of the core values of evaluation. Continuous improvement efforts focused on:

  • Improving the evaluation model by implementing policy changes based on feedback
  • Continuing to assess the effectiveness of current policies
  • Introducing new elements into evaluation
  • Increasing the reliability and impact of evaluation data
  • Evaluating the impact of evaluation

More information about the state’s educator evaluation system can be found at

In the 2012-13 school year, the state administered the Teaching, Empowering, Leading, and Learning (TELL) survey for the second time during the Race to the Top grant period. The TELL survey is a research-based tool used to measure key working conditions for teachers that correlate with increased student achievement. More than 61,000 Tennessee educators (approximately 82 percent) took the survey, up from a 77 percent response rate in 2011. After two years of rapid change and numerous reforms, teachers reported improved work environments on nearly every survey question from the 2011 to the 2013 survey administrations. Most notably, more than 84 percent of educators reported that they are recognized as educational experts, and more than 85 percent believe they are trusted to make sound professional decisions about instruction. In addition, when looking at TELL results in other states, Tennessee educators were more positive overall than any other state that administered the survey. For complete results, please visit

The state made significant progress in the 2012-13 school year in several other areas of its Teachers and Leaders work, including recruiting and training another cohort of Teach TN Fellows, continuing execution of four teacher and principal residency programs across the state, publishing its annual report card on the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs, and providing job-embedded professional development grants to 12 districts to create systems for using evaluation data to provide PD to educators. 

School Turnaround

The Achievement School District (ASD) was created through the state’s Race to the Top application to catapult the bottom five percent of schools in Tennessee straight to the top 25 percent. The 2012-13 school year marked the first year of operation for the ASD, with six schools in its portfolio--three direct-run schools and three charter schools. Five of the six schools are in Memphis, with the sixth being in Nashville. The Achievement School District is focused on increasing freedom and autonomy at the state and school levels to redefine what a “district” is, and is relentlessly dedicated to recruiting and retaining the country’s top talent in its schools to propel its students on a path to college and career readiness.

In the ASD’s first year as a district, its students are showing signs of progress. The district earned a “Level 5” TVAAS growth rating and ASD students made solid gains in math, science, and social studies. As was the trend across the state, reading scores were not as strong, and ASD schools are responding quickly to make improvements in the second year of operation. In addition, parents, teachers and students gave ASD schools high marks in year one. 75 percent of ASD students described their schools as positive places to learn. In the ASD’s Achievement Schools in the Frayser community of Memphis, expulsion rates were cut in half and over 90% of parents gave the schools an “A” or “B” on the end of year survey. For more information, visit the Achievement School District website.

The state also launched revamped supports for its Focus Schools, as outlined in its ESEA Flexibility request. A competitive grant competition was executed to provide additional funding for the 167 Focus Schools in the state to develop and implement plans to close achievement gaps. Applications were received from 151 of these schools and ultimately, $19.2 million was awarded to 56 Focus Schools. These schools spent the 2012-13 school year implementing their plans to address gap closure in the following areas:

  • Individualized Student Support
  • Human Capital Development
  • Performance Management and Sustainability
  • Extended Learning Time
  • Community Engagement
The state also launched its first cohort of Reward School Ambassadors. Reward Schools are the top 5 percent of schools in Tennessee for annual growth and the top 5 percent for achievement. The program enlists highly effective teachers from the state’s top schools to share best practices and help improve student achievement across the state. 15 teachers were named to the program and are tasked with working with neighboring schools in each region to improve student achievement and reduce achievement gaps. Reward School Ambassadors – all teachers who earned an overall 5, the top score on Tennessee’s teacher evaluations – were nominated by their schools and selected for this year-long, paid position through a competitive application and interview process. Reward Schools whose nominees were selected received a $20,000 grant to further their educational programming. Reward Ambassadors spent the 2012-13 school year continuing their teaching posts and receiving additional training and professional development to prepare them to leave their classrooms in the 2013-14 school year and work as part of the state’s CORE Offices, providing coaching and support to struggling schools in their regions.


Established by an Executive Order of the Governor, the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network (the TSIN or Network) is a unique, public-private collaboration between the Tennessee Department of Education and Battelle Memorial Institute designed to promote and expand the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in K-12 public schools across Tennessee. During year one of implementation, the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network awarded grants to two STEM hubs, one to be based in Knoxville and one to be based in Nashville.  The Hubs serve as the nucleus of regional STEM activity, representing a formal partnership among school districts, post-secondary institutions, STEM businesses, and community organizations, all committed to amplifying and accelerating the impact of STEM programs in their region. Each hub is also supporting the development of a STEM school in the local school district.

In the 2011-12 school year, grants were made to three more schools and hubs for a total of five STEM schools that began operating in the 2012-13 school year. The three new schools and hubs are in Chattanooga, Cookeville, and the Tri-Cities areas.  The network launched its final hub and school in Memphis in the 2012-13 school year. Between the six hubs, the STEM network now has a statewide impact and is working to promote, share, and engage communities in STEM education. For more information, visit the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network website.




Last Update: January 15, 2015