State and district leaders must prioritize data in COVID-19 recovery efforts. Leveraging new and existing data to target resources where they are most needed ensures that recovery efforts are effective and equitable; moreover, thinking strategically about improving data systems will help to sustain changes beyond the next year.
New federal funding through the American Rescue Plan (ARP) has given leaders the unprecedented chance to invest in data and reimagine how they can support student success. To learn more about funding considerations for state and local leaders, DQC’s Allie Ball spoke to DQC Board Chair Tomeka Hart Wigginton, former school board chair for Memphis City Schools and current managing director at Blue Meridian Partners. In this interview, Hart Wigginton reflects on her experience as one of the leaders of Tennessee’s bid for Race to the Top (RTT) funding in 2010 and urges state and local leaders to “think big” when deciding how to spend incoming dollars.
Question #1: Describe your experience with RTT funding in Tennessee.
Hart Wigginton: It started in 2008–09 during my tenure as the School Board chair for Memphis City Schools. We had recently been engaged as a potential partner district in the Measures of Effective Teachers (MET) project. I worked directly with the district superintendent, the academic team, and union president to develop and present a comprehensive strategy for building effective teachers and leaders. Our bid was successful, and Memphis was one of four districts selected nationally, receiving $90 million in funding.
When RTT came around in 2010, Tennessee’s plan was partially built on that work that was already being done in Memphis. This was a major reason why Tennessee was so competitive: they could hold up existing success stories and established partnerships, which other states could not. To highlight this work, I was tapped as one of four representatives to join then-Governor Bredesen to travel to DC and present our plan to the US Department of Education. Tennessee was one of two states awarded first round funding, totaling approximately $500 million.
Question #2: Why was Tennessee’s RTT bid so successful?
Hart Wigginton: Tennessee didn’t start from scratch—instead, they looked at what had already been shown to work on the ground. The state had already implemented multiple reform strategies, including setting higher K–12 standards aligned to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or NAEP), establishing ambitious goals to increase postsecondary attainment and completion rates, and, in some districts, working with external partners to recruit, support, and retain high-quality teachers. Further, Tennessee’s student growth data infrastructure had been in place for years, and, like many other states, Tennessee incorporated lessons learned from Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina into their school improvement strategy. The state’s teacher and leader support strategy was modeled on the MET initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and scaled statewide. Drawing from proven best practices allowed Tennessee to make a more compelling case to the Department.
Because they built on a foundation of local work, Tennessee was also able to leverage existing partnerships with non-profits, funders, and other organizations in the state. That’s something that current leaders should consider with ARP funding: what new and different partners do they need to engage to effectively meet students’ needs? Out-of-school partners, for example, will have a critical role in supporting students wherever they are. Public-private partnerships are also a good way to maximize the impact of federal investments.
Question #3: How did Tennessee engage with stakeholders when developing their plan?
Hart Wigginton: From the beginning, Tennessee leaders intentionally sought buy-in from key partners in the state. They worked with teachers unions to develop a new approach to teacher evaluation. They also used the carrot of federal funding to secure legislator support, which allowed them to enshrine their plan into state law with the Tennessee First to the Top Act. This early support was not only instrumental in building Tennessee’s plan, but also in demonstrating the sustainability of the changes they wanted to make.
District leaders also had a lot of voice in that process—and they’ll have an even bigger role this time around. The vast majority of ARP funds are going to the local level, which means district leaders need to have a vision for what they’ll do with that money. These funds are not intended to just plug holes or supplant existing budgets; this is an opportunity to make big changes, particularly when it comes to infrastructure or data systems. Leaders should take the time to research and identify evidence-based strategies that will meet local needs. They’re not just spending, they’re investing.
Finally, state and district leaders need to make their case to their communities. This requires taking real ownership over their plans. They should clearly describe what they will do, why, and how it will benefit different groups. These funds are ultimately meant to serve the community, and any changes need to outlast current leadership. Twenty years from now, we should be able to see the impact of this moment.
Question #4: What other advice do you have for state and district leaders considering how to spend ARP funding?
Hart Wigginton: Lead with equity. State and district leaders need to think about what they mean when they talk about an “equitable recovery.” Returning to the status quo is not enough—they need to look beyond that and focus on addressing existing gaps that existed before the pandemic. This is an opportunity to be bold and think big.
To do so, they will need to invest in data. It may not be sexy, but it is critical for maximizing impact and ensuring sustainability. If a district doesn’t already have a robust data system, this is the time to make it happen. Leaders should also use these funds to improve existing data systems—improving system interoperability, and making sure external partners have access to the data they need to support students. The need for robust data systems goes far beyond emergency response; they are something we needed before, and we will continue to need in the future.