As part of an effort to learn more about the implementation of Tennessee’s First to the Top plan to improve student achievement, my colleague Laura Moore and I have been talking with educators across the state and gaining an incredibly valuable perspective on what is changing in classrooms, schools, and school districts. While policymakers can speak to the overall structure of the reform initiatives, it is important to hear from the practitioners responsible for carrying out this significant work in the field. As Sir Michael Barber said, “Winning Race to the Top is at best only 10 percent of transforming a state’s education system; the remaining 90 percent is implementation, implementation, implementation.” I wanted to know more about what that 90 percent really looks like.

Several themes emerged during our conversations:

  • Education stakeholders (particularly teachers and administrators) are very excited about the potential to truly impact student learning with reform work, such as more rigorous academic standards and improved teacher evaluation.
  • There is a sense that some changes were made too quickly without providing sufficient guidance. One principal compared the situation to that of trying to build a nice house on a lot that was filled with building material – the necessary pieces are all there, but they have to sift through a pile of resources before they are able to build the mansion.
  • Implementation of the same initiative can look very different across school districts. Based on our discussions, the critical factor appears to be the quality of leadership at the school and district level.
  • There is consensus that the state Department of Education has made significant improvements in the way it communicates with educators and conducts training sessions, but now that momentum needs to be sustained. To support implementation efforts, teachers and principals are saying the Department should continue to gather feedback, provide opportunities to share best practices, and facilitate ongoing professional learning.

We heard consistently from educators that they appreciate being at the table in improving reform initiatives in Tennessee. Educators value the opportunity to come together and share ideas. In one focus group, a participant described the collaborative trend: “The powers that be are listening – listening to what we have to say and we feel like we are a part of the decision-making process.”

Educators keep saying the most inspiring part of this reform work has been the excitement and energy behind Tennessee’s commitment to higher standards and student learning. Although they recognize the challenge ahead, the educators we spoke with are excited about pushing their students to succeed. As one teacher said, “I’ve lived in Tennessee all my life. If we believe in our kids, they can do anything.”