Posted on September 26, 2011
Sen. Lamar Alexander
EVERYONE knows that today every American’s job is on the line, and that better schools mean better jobs. Schools and jobs are alike in this sense: Washington can’t create good jobs, and Washington can’t create good schools. What Washington can do, though, is shape an environment in which businesses and entrepreneurs can create jobs. It can do the same thing in education, by creating an environment in which teachers, parents and communities can build better schools. Last week President Obama, citing a failure by Congress to act, announced a procedure for handing out waivers for the federal mandates under the No Child Left Behind law. Unfortunately, these waivers come with a series of new federal rules, this time without congressional approval, and would make the secretary of education the equivalent of a national school board.
However, there is another way. Earlier this month, several senators and I introduced a set of five bills that would fix the problems with this important federal law.
No Child Left Behind, created through a bipartisan effort in 2001, set a goal that all 50 million students in our nearly 100,000 public schools would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. There would be state standards and tests, and requirements that our 3.2 million teachers be “highly qualified.” Schools failing to meet “adequate yearly progress” standards would receive federal sanctions. For parents, there would be more school choice, including new charter schools.
Almost a decade later, however, it is likely that nearly 80 percent of American schools will soon fail to meet the adequate yearly progress standards.
My colleagues and I agree with the Obama administration that after a decade of federal rules, more responsibility needs to go back to the states. No Child Left Behind has made one thing clear: when it comes to education reform, the states are both highly capable and highly motivated. Since 2002, 44 states and territories have adopted common core academic standards, two groups of states are developing common tests for those standards and 44 states are collaborating on common principles for holding schools accountable for student achievement.
Many states and school districts are also finding ways to reward outstanding teaching and to include student performance as a part of that evaluation. That may seem like common sense, but until Tennessee created its master-teacher program in 1984, not one state paid one teacher one penny more for teaching well.
Our legislation would scuttle entirely the Washington-imposed adequate-yearly-progress requirements set by No Child Left Behind, and would instead require states to set their own high standards to promote college- and career-readiness for all students. We agree that all states should aim to make their graduates capable of entering higher education or the workforce. But we also believe there are many ways to get there, and states should have the flexibility to find the ones that works best for them.
Our bill would change not only the way students are evaluated, but the way teachers are as well. The “highly qualified” requirement is usually met through graduate or professional training. But training doesn’t always translate into improved performance in the classroom. Instead, we would encourage states to develop teacher- and principal-evaluation systems related to student achievement.
At the same time, we would continue to require the reporting of student progress — not so Washington could decide whether to sanction a school, but so that parents, teachers and communities can know whether their students are succeeding. The data would also help with future reforms: thanks to No Child Left Behind, we have several years of school-by-school information about student progress in each school. We can see now what works, and where work needs to be done.
We would also make it easier for state governments and local school districts to expand the number of charter schools, which have been shown to improve student achievement in under-performing districts.
Finally, we would cut through the bureaucratic thicket of federal education assistance by consolidating programs and making it easier for the states to receive needed resources. And we would make sure that some of that money went specifically to help states turn around the bottom 5 percent of their schools.
While all the sponsors of this legislation are Republican senators, many of the ideas were either first advanced or have been worked on in concert with Mr. Obama; his excellent education secretary, Arne Duncan; and Democratic colleagues in both the House and the Senate.
We want to continue to work with our colleagues across the aisle and in the House. Our purpose in offering our ideas is to spur progress so we can enact a bill by the end of the year.
Mr. Duncan has warned us that under existing law, most schools will be labeled as failing schools within a few years, and he is proposing to use his waiver authority to avoid that. The best way for us to relieve Mr. Duncan of the need to consider waivers and to help American children learn what they need to know, and what they need to be able to do, is to fix No Child Left Behind.