U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has one underlying message to share about the federal education law he co-authored and co-sponsored last year in Congress: Leave decisions about schools up to local stakeholders.
Alexander, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, spoke Monday to an audience of Tennessee educators and policymakers at Belmont University in Nashville about the revised federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, formerly called No Child Left Behind and now known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. The discussion was moderated by Belmont professor and former Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Jesse Register.
Alexander knows Tennessee education from numerous angles. The son of a kindergarten teacher and elementary school principal in Maryville, he promoted standardized skills for students and merit pay for teachers as governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987. Prior to his 2002 election to the U.S. Senate, he also served as president of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and U.S. education secretary under President George H.W. Bush.
Here’s what Alexander had to say about his experiences with education policy, and what he hopes is in store for his home state:
On why No Child Left Behind had to go
No Child Left Behind was passed under President George W. Bush’s administration in 2001, and signed into law in 2002. The law dramatically ramped up the federal government’s role in education and had a lofty goal: that all students in the United States would be “proficient” in math and reading by the 2013-2014 school year. Schools, states and districts that failed to comply with No Child Left Behind were penalized financially.
It quickly became apparent that most schools would be labeled as failures under this ambitious metric, and President Barack Obama in 2011 offered states waivers to the law. In order to receive a waiver, states were required to adopt rigorous “career-and-college” readiness standards. Though no specific set of standards was mandated, almost all states, including Tennessee, moved to adopt the Common Core State Standards.
The U.S. Department of Education also asked states applying for a waiver to focus on schools in the bottom 15 percent, and to create teacher evaluations at least in part based on teacher evaluations.
Alexander called the waivers overly prescriptive and said they created the appearance that the federal government was requiring states to do things they might have done anyway, significantly undermining certain reforms.
“The department was in effect acting as a national school board for the 42 states with waivers — 100,000 schools,” he said. “The states were doing fine until the federal government stuck its nose into it and created a huge backlash on Common Core, a huge backlash on teacher evaluation and really set both those efforts back. So it was important to get the balls back in the hands of the people who really should have it.”
On testing and accountability
The Every Student Succeeds Act mandates annual testing in math, English and science in grades 3-11. It also mandates states break down the test scores to look at achievement gaps among various subgroups of students by race, socioeconomic status, and even homeless students and students in foster care.
“There are more things you have to look at in your accountability system, but what you do about those things is up to you,” he said.
Alexander said he went into the process of rewriting No Child Left Behind thinking it would eliminate federally required tests. However, he changed his stance after realizing, he said, that people had fewer concerns about the federally required tests, and more concerns about what was being done with test results.
“The problem was Washington telling people what to do with those tests — states were using those tests for everything!” he said. “So schools were giving dozens of tests to prepare to that test. We found one district in Florida was giving 183 tests. But only 17 were required by the federal government.”
Like past federal regulations, the new act requires states to break out their lowest-performing schools. But it leaves the decisions on how the state identifies its lowest schools to the state, and the decisions about how to turn around those schools to districts. (The law will not interfere with state turnaround districts such as Tennessee’s Achievement School District, Alexander’s policy aides clarified after the discussion.)
Alexander charged that the state’s TNReady woes — including the state’s failed new online standardized test and numerous delays in shifting back to paper tests — are a direct result of federal meddling.
“The problem is the federal government stuck its nose in Tennessee and helped create a huge backlash against Common Core,” he said. “As a result, the legislature and the governor changed that. And when you change the academic standards and when you change the test, it’s very expensive and it takes awhile. So my view is, if the federal government had kept its nose out of it, Tennessee was doing just fine. And I think Tennessee will do fine in the future, as soon as it gets back on track.”
The Common Core, which was was developed in a multi-state process spearheaded by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, was endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education.
Regarding presidential candidates who want to repeal the Common Core, Alexander said he was exasperated even by the inclusion of Common Core into recent presidential debates.
“We still have people running against it — even though it’s not there unless the governor and the legislature and the school board and the teachers want it to be there.” he said. “As of last December, there’s a law that says the federal government is not authorized to set standards.”
On next steps for Tennessee
“The exciting thing about (the Every Student Succeeds Act) is that it … recognizes that the path to better teaching, higher standards, higher achievement, lies through classroom teachers, the local school board, and the state of Tennessee,” Alexander said.
He urged state policymakers to submit a plan on what they want to do under the new law — not to wait for regulations from the U.S. Department of Education.
“Come up with your own ideas, and then fit it into the federal template,” he said.
Alexander warned educators not only to be on the lookout from federal interference, but state interference as well.
“If there’s overtesting in any Tennessee school, it’s Tennessee’s responsibility,” he said.