Tennessee received a mostly favorable review from the U.S. Department of Education for its first year of implementing school reform measures under the federal Race to the Top grant program.
On Tuesday, the Department of Education released reports on 12 states that received pieces of the $4.35 billion grant program. Tennessee was one of two states to receive funding in the first round in 2010, when it won more than $500 million to implement changes in public education.
The report, which examines the 2010-11 school year, the first of four years of the grant, lauded Tennessee for creating a teacher evaluation model tied to student achievement, implementing a statewide Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiative and creating a special school district to help turn around the state's lowest-performing schools, among other efforts.
"Race to the Top states have made tremendous strides in this first year," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a released statement. "These 12 states have acted with courage and commitment in taking on ambitious education reform. Their Year One work has helped lay the foundation for long-term, statewide improvements centered on doing what's best for students."
Of the 12 state reports released, nine states, including Tennessee and Georgia, were labeled as being on track, while the Department of Education pointed out significant issues with Hawaii, Florida and New York.
Reports for Tennessee and Georgia cited turnover of key education staff as top challenges to implementing reform work. All 140 Tennessee school districts are participating in the competitive Race to the Top program. In Georgia, 26 school systems are participating under the state's $400 million grant.
In Tennessee, the departure of term-limited Gov. Phil Bredesen and the election of Gov. Bill Haslam and his appointment of new Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman led to delays in filling important positions at the Tennessee Department of Education, according to the report.
"Although the new governor collaborated with (the Tennessee Department of Education) staff prior to taking office, and both he and his new commissioner are committed to education reform, the transition to new leadership was not seamless," the report states.
Kelli Gauthier, Tennessee Department of Education spokeswoman, said most senior staff positions have now been filled. Hires weren't made until after Huffman's appointment in March and officials were well aware of the delay to implement some changes, Gauthier said.
"It's not a surprise at all," she said. "I don't think there's anything that any of us here now could have done differently in terms of the setbacks during transition."
Gauthier said federal officials are optimistic that Tennessee will meet timelines for implementing its Race to the Top agenda.
"They feel good about where we are," she said. "Everyone here definitely feels good about our ability to reach the goals we've set for ourselves."
The report on Georgia also pointed out turnover in leadership as an obstacle to reform. Gov. Nathan Deal replaced term-limited Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2011 and John Barge replaced Kathy Cox as state school superintendent.
The report said most of Georgia's reform staff wasn't hired until last spring, with the last Race to the Top position filled in September. Six of the largest participating school systems also experienced leadership changes and hired new superintendents last school year.
"This resulted in significant timeline delays and required numerous adjustments to the implementation schedule," the report states.
Jon Rogers, communications director for Georgia's Race to the Top programs, said most initiatives are on schedule, even with the staffing changes.
"With the transition of leadership, they wanted to make sure they had the right people in place," he said. "All those people are in place now. We're right on track."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...